Ōkunoshima has a dark history as the site of Japan’s secret chemical weapons production during World War II. The island factory produced produced more than six kilotons of five poison gases, used in roughly
2,000 separate attacks on the Chinese from 1937 — 1945, causing more than 80,000 casualties.
In recent years, however, the island has been reborn as a tourist attraction and Internet sensation thanks to its huge population of wild rabbits. This transformation seems particularly ironic given that chemical weapons were once tested on rabbits.
“Rabbits became the victims and were used for experiments; however it seemed reasonable at the time,” according to a translated interview with the original museum director at Ōkunoshima.
Rabbits used in testing were supposedly euthanized when the factory shut down after the war. The hundreds of rabbits found on the island today are thought to be descendants of eight rabbits released by schoolchildren in 1971.
Stephanie Broekarts, 25, an environmental-social sciences student at Kyoto University traveled to Ōkunoshima, aka Usagi Jima or Rabbit Island, earlier this year.
“I was couch surfing with a local girl and she showed me pictures of her visit to Ōkunoshima and I was instantly sold. I’ve always been a big animal fan, bunnies in particular, so something nicknamed ‘the bunny island’ was something I couldn’t skip,” Broekarts wrote.
Below are some pictures she shared of her trip to Rabbit Island:
The small island of Ōkunoshima is located in the Seto Inland Sea in the Hiroshima Prefecture. The island lies about 2 miles from the mainland and the distance was considered far enough so that if an accident were to occur at the poison gas facility it would not impact urban centres.
Broekarts said she took a train to Hiro station and then transferred trains to Tadanoumi station. The trip took almost 2 hours and cost around 1,240 Japanese Yen or $US12. She then took an hourly ferry from Tadanoumi which brought her to Rabbit Island in about 10 minutes.
The coastline of Rabbit Island is only 1.5 miles long. Here is a picture of the rabbit ear-shaped viewers that line the edge of the coast.
“There is only one hotel on the island with a big front yard, where indeed there were heaps of bunnies roaming around,” Broekarts wrote.
When the hotel was under construction, the poison gas facilties were used as temporary housing.
“Inside the hotel were a reception desk, a gift shop, and zero guests to be seen.”
Visitors are encouraged to bring food for the rabbits, especially in the winter months when natural food sources are scarce. The rabbits prefer carrots, cabbage, and rabbit feed which can be purchased at the hotel for about $US1 a cup. Dogs and cats are strictly forbidden from the island.
“Everywhere you walk on the island, bunnies will come up to you and sniff you …
… hopping away again as soon as they notice you don’t have any food,” Broekarts wrote.
Here is a picture of the former two-room poison gas laboratory on the island which was converted into a museum in 1988. “At the entrance of the museum is an unsupervised ticket machine and a sign that says, ‘War is meaningless and the production of poison gas is tragic. We make an appeal for everlasting peace,” Broekarts wrote.
This is the abandoned inspection room at the gas plant. All of the poison gas products were examined and stored here. One type of poison gas produced here was ‘sneezing gas’ which induced uncontrollable sneezing, convulsions, vomiting, and death. “I went in but got quickly spooked and ran out again,” Broekarts wrote.
Broekarts says she saw more than 100 rabbits on the island during her stay. More than 300 rabbits are thought to roam the island and are considered harmless to visitors.
For a while the water supply on the island was polluted with arsenic. In 2005, the Environment Ministry reported that the level of arsenic in the atmosphere was 49 times higher than the environmental standard. The 11 known locations on the island where workers buried gas are sealed off from tourists.
“The factory workers wore rubber uniforms, gas masks, gloves, and boots, but the gas still managed to penetrate through their protective gear, injuring their skin, eyes, and throat,” Broekarts wrote. Approximately 6,500 people worked at the site during its operational years.
Tourists are generally advised to stay on official walkways and paths since there has never been a major decontamination operation on the island.
“The island also boosts a golf course, tennis court, playgrounds, beaches and campgrounds. Even though this day the place looked close to deserted, this little island attracts a lot more visitors on sunny summer days,” Broekarts wrote. Ōkunoshima has an estimated 100,000 annual visitors.
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