Gunkanjima軍艦島 or Hashima 端島: Memory, Displacement & Exploitations

The uninhabited island colony Hashima 端島 is popularly called by the Japanese Gunkanjima 軍艦島 (Battleship Island).

From 1887 until 1974, it was an island packed with coal mine workers and their families. At one point, it was considered the most densely populated place in the world. Many urban poor Japanese and their families, were sent here to work during the Japanese government’s plan to increase their coal production. The workers on this island were to mine the coal underneath the ocean that surrounds the island. In addition, the Japanese used forced labor on the island between 1939 and 1945, forcibly bringing about 500 Koreans and their families to work on the island. Many of them died on duty there. For beginning information on this, see:

In 1974, as oil became the leading mineral source for energy around the world, including Japan, the need for mining coal from the oceans ceased. The workers were jobless. A percentage were offered jobs on a first-come/first-serve basis, while others were left without work. The buildings were left abandoned in a matter of one week, the entire population leaving. It is told that many of the families who were not offered work experienced hardships upon returning.

It is now being considered as a UNESCO heritage site, to be preserved. There are daily tours through which money is being made.

This story is unique in that it is this particular island. But the story of displacement and lack of care for workers is a very standard scenario when it comes to labor and governments. Any privileges that any of us have, are based on the workers such as these on the islands, where our parents and grandparents, and we ourselves, are using things that families such as these, risk their ‘happiness and comfort’ for, and perhaps die for. Coal mining and the shift to oil, has brought many displacements, suicides, and abuses throughout the world. Now, as we begin formulating a world without oil and towards something else, what do our ‘masters’–the governments and transnational corporations, have in mind for people? What communities and people are being exploited? For what?

Gunkanjima, is a great example of one such scenario, and a reminder of memory and how it lives. Whether we were there or not, whether we knew about it or not, our lives are touched in that we consume and use the technologies that drive our societies.

It is also interesting/sad to note, that when we look at many blogs and photographers’ sites pertaining to Gunkanjima, it is exploited as something for the photographers and artists to use, to take beautiful interesting pictures, to produce what they want. Also, some were drawn to the site and talk endlessly about how they felt about the island and drawn to it as an individual. But no connection to finding out or informing people of the lives there and what it means. Some of the pictures on the sites are wonderful, do not get me wrong about that. But what I do NOT like, is the approach. The colonial expansionist approach to memory. Many of these photographers and artists do not even mention anything of the lives of the people there and what happened there and afterwards. The dominant approach is that: “Hey, here’s this interesting desolate place that can allow ME to have beautiful shaded colors and present some startling images and it feeds my imagination……” To me, images may present incredible images but from a social justice point-of-view it’s sickening. At the same time, I love the fact that they have taken pictures. Otherwise, who would remember?

Our wonderful tourist sites where the privileged can go to at their beck and call for amusement, which Gunkanjima seems to be slated to become, are ways for us to ‘enjoy’ and perhaps make our violence a subject of museums and our sadness and whisfulness and feelings of regret channeled into this space, supposedly to remember. But what of remembering if we do not make it act in the present, now? It would be great if we thought about our responsibilities and participation in the world and to history. As we exploit, we need to question our privileges in our exploitation. As long as we are going to do it. I say that we begin to destroy the need to exploit. This doesn’t just mean our governments. We walk on the dust of dead communities, killed so that our present nations can continue to consume and glorify themselves.  All of us partake, so no one is immune.  Gunkanjima’s families spent years on an island partly because of necessity, while the Koreans were forcibly brought there.

In what ways can we honor our present? In what ways can we honor memory? Even at the same time, we may watch videos and view photos with mixed emotions, still appreciating the beauty, but also understanding that it may also contain brutalities. Do we actually think that this quality of our lives as built on violence is inevitable?  If not, how can we make it different?

Excellent blogpost by Brian Burke-Gaffney in CABINET magazine Issue 7 Summer 2002:

Essay by Saiga Yuji, translated by Ogata Keiko: “Thoughts on Gunkanjima”:

Overview at Wikipedia:

Below is a wonderful short documentary video by Thomas Nordanstad with subtitles.