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.

August 1945 – Hiroshima & Nagasaki 広島と長崎 : Politics/Memory/Reality

PHOTO:  Japanese girl praying at the Hiroshima Memorial Museum in Japan.  Courtesy of China Daily.

August 6 and August 9, 1945.   The Great Death occurred in Japan.

Everyone in the universe is an ancestor of the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima 広島 and Nagasaki 長崎, Japan in August of 1945.

What parts memory and apathy, ignorance and decadence play in our identities as world citizens would inform the level to which we may understand my opening statement.  It indicts and also informs new possibilities–to say: we are all ancestors of that horrific period.  The problem is that people think of war as an event.  War happens at such and such a time and the opponents are good or bad, one or the other.  Usually, all sides of the war play themselves out as ‘good.’  Also, many citizens of a region, community, ethnic group, religion, or nation-state, and other such divisions that foment conflict escalations into warfare, may think of themselves as ‘innocent’ in a war.  I do not blame any of these sides for their self-labels.  This is because the fog into which we are thrust when it comes to memory, and how memory is largely controlled by larger forces, is ignored or made too complex for understanding in the mainstream ways in which we have learned to think.  Indeed, I would challenge the fact that most people know how to ‘think’ because we have been taught to do our thinking within a framework that benefits the national dominant, in which we are citizens.

An aunt, whom I never knew, died in Hiroshima in the atomic bomb blast on August 6, 1945.  My mother’s older sister had gone from Osaka to Hiroshima that day, to pick up important documents concerning my mother and her father.  By 8:20 that morning, she was incinerated and blown through the atmosphere, gone forever.

When my mother and I were moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico by my father–who is an African-American man who met my soon-to-be mother when he served in the US Occupation of Japan on the Occupation police force, my mother was terrified to learn that the Los Alamos laboratory, just two hours away, was where the atomic bomb had been conceived and tested, then shipped to the Enola Gay.  I, being too young, did not know why she was upset, at the time.

As an adult, I learned about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb.  It wasn’t until I was 19 years old, when I asked very innocently about my mother’s siblings, that I found out about her older sister that was killed.  Then my mother proceeded to tell me that she experienced one year of US bombings in Tokyo, then two months of bombings in Osaka.   Over the years, I began reflecting on why my mother was the way she was….always awake at night, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, then sleeping until 2 or 3 in the afternoon.  She would sometimes be sweating when she woke up, and would have to take a bath.  We lived on US Air Force Bases in Japan and in the US.  Whenever the noontime sirens would go off, my mother would become tense and she would become fidgety, sometimes cry out with some kind of sound.  I, found out, that the sirens bothered her.  The US bombings of Osaka were at NIGHT.   It all made sense to me then, at that moment I began to actually think about my mother, instead of myself.  She had come from a wealthy upper-class Japanese family, but she had spent much of the postwar time in poverty and their family had to have rationed rice and for a short time, she and her friend had survived on the streets eating rat’s legs sometimes.

Over the years, as I began doing public talks of my experiences in Japan in the early 1960s, and speaking about my mothers’ experiences to people; as well as doing research on the World War II Japanese experience, Hiroshima and Nagasaki loomed large and in most cases, most Americans only thought of this as World War II.  The other pictures Americans had in their minds were of the Japanese brutalities toward its Asian neighbors in China, the Philippines, Korea, and Southeast Asia.  No other images of Japanese/US relations or history, no other images of what was happening in Japan, or in the halls of the US Occupation forces along with their scientific laboratories, military bases, educational institutions, and economic institutions toward ‘re-building’ Japan, were known to anyone.  It really was true.  People’s prejudices and knowledges are formed by what they have encountered over and over and over.  There is no investigation or questioning.  Even with the nicest of people and friends, the most thoughtful, there was nothing I could do to surmount the defensiveness and ignorance.  In addition, there is aggression in regards to memory, by both the Japanese people by-in-large, and the Americans.

I became further traumatized and disheartened when I began speaking and writing about it in the US, and I would be met with “you should’ve all died in the bomb’ and ‘there weren’t enough atomic bombs dropped on you’ and ‘it’s even payback for Pearl Harbor and Nanking and Seoul.’  I would be the first to condemn the Japanese military and government’s brutalities.  I do not make them worse or better than the US.  If people would research how the US had treated Japan leading into the war, the knowledge of the US government about Pearl Harbor, the politics of building and using the bomb in relation to the Soviets, and the use of Japanese bodies to secure US imperial ambitions, etc. etc. etc……perhaps the story would be different.  Perhaps we can say that everyone needs to change directions and we can create something different.

I have also been aware of the tireless and depressing work that the atomic bomb survivors–the hibakusha 被爆者 have been doing, to enlighten people on the work and what their work means.  People have tended to see their work as a plea for pity and compassion.  Yes compassion, perhaps, but the knowledge of the leaders on how the US and Japanese governments colluded to keep information hidden, and how the US were callously uninterested in healing Japan or the survivors, but interested in experiments and scientific data, and how the cruelty and force of the US Occupation has been hidden from the public, and other such information has been a key factor in the hibakusha’s work in educating people.  The work of ‘never again’ had been abandoned by the hibakusha when they themselves began doing research and through their experiences, realized that this was naive.  Would people who conceived the bomb, then dropping it on a people, be uninterested in that country’s welfare unless it benefited them, and be designing bigger and more horrific bombs at the same time, be told ‘why don’t we stop doing it, it’s bad’?  The road to peace, is more complex than asking for it.  It is too late to have this kind of peace.  It is deeper, more insidious, more complex, more frustrating.  It would take tremendous social movements to develop to shift our world from national elite mentalities.  All of us are within this system.  What we know needs to be a question, and what we do not know needs to be known.  How to THINK about these things is also another issue and concern. Knowledge alone will suddenly wake people up.  Some people know many things.  How do they think of these things?  Do they secretly want the ‘other’ to go away from the world, but are nice about it, or keeping it to themselves?  Do they even care about how to use knowledge except as personal opinion?

The prominence of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki atomic bombs in the Pacific War imagination, has made people like my mother, become invisible.  If one were to look at the pictures of Osaka, where my mother’s family lived, in 1945, you would see a city that is desolate and gone, and similar to the picture of Hiroshima.  The US did daily bombings in 66 different cities during this time.  Most of the killings were of civilians.  The chemical weapons were used.  In the case of Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, for instance, the fire-bombs were used.  This was purposefully used in Japan, where many of the houses were made of wood and paper, and the fires would spread quickly as chemicals sprang out from the bombs in all directions, then igniting a spark to create the fire.  These were not just explosions.  My mother’s history of being bombed over a prolonged period of time, is a trauma that has not been addressed or spoken of.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki stories need to be told. But also, the fire-bombing experience is another form of prolonged tension, torture and death.  Daily bombings. Daily.  Now, as you see in the video below, young Japanese children from Tokyo, are taken on field trips to the Hiroshima Memorial and are fed lies about how the benevolent US helped save and build Japan.  Hiroshima, in other words, is USED by the powers and has gained prominence in the imagination because of it, not just because of the horrific actuality of it.  The daily bombings of 66 cities and the 60 percent utter destruction and killings are not mentioned at all except by historians more-or-less excited by it while they look at pictures of nice-looking warplanes built by the US (i.e. entertainment).

The hibakusha story was not over at the dropping of the bomb.  And it started way before the bomb.  As you may know from reading, even the military has conceded, through the display of their own documents, that the dropping of the bomb was strategic and was eager to be used in order to show up the Soviets.  The Japanese were already starving and defeated at the time the bomb was dropped.  But I cannot tell some people this.  They continue to feel that it was just and America did ‘the right thing.’  These people will also allow other bombs and killings by their nation-states, because they believe ‘it is justice.’  So we will NOT have peace in the near future.

As I write this, it is August 5, 2010.  I write this with my ancestors in mind.  My father, working in a military that treated Black men inferior.  He worked as a policeman in the US Occupation, while sometimes, he had to go to the Korean War fields during the US war there–a war which most people do not remember.  My father trying to be a good American, while the Japanese public largely knew nothing of what atrocities the Japanese had committed in the neighboring nations.  My uncle, my mother’s older brother, was a colonel in Burma (today it is called Myanmar), but had left just before one of the most brutal battlefields of World War II, in Burma, had started.  When I had the chance to speak with him about his experience for a short period when I was younger, his stories were horrific.  He had conflicts with some of this brutal higher command and had to endure their abuse against him and the more subordinate soldiers.  The legacies of oppression continued.  Meanwhile, lynchings of Blacks in US Occupation prisons in Japan were happening, and enduring the racism in the military to be a national citizen continued for my father.

Many people still believe the names that are given to institutions as exactly what they say they do.  The organization mentioned in the video below:  ABCC – The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, has been told to the Americans as one of the more benevolent things the US had been doing to ‘help’ the devastated and uncivilized Japanese to become a nation again.  It was a front for the experiments the US needed to do on the victims.  In addition, they had to cover up the fact that nuclear reactors and nuclear energy, spread through air and water without detection and caused cancers and related diseases.  This had to be hidden from the world population, now that there were nuclear plants around the world.  Compassion and kind democracy was and still is,  a cover for other things.  These things had been planned way before the atomic bomb was conceived of.  The World War was an imperial project that began with France, Britain, Australia and the US snubbing Germans, the Soviets and the Japanese, as well as the Southern Europeans.  Not just in attitude.  Some of these nations were not doing well economically and within their poverty, they resisted the market-capitalist system which made them go deeper into debt and to be controlled by those countries.  I do not say that fascism is correct.  I am pointing to the reality of pressure, of attitude, of racism, of self-concern, and a callous disregard and disrespect in the intensity that creates enemies.  Enemies co-create.  If one has more resources at one’s disposal, then perhaps there is a power imbalance already.  The fear of losing that power plays a large role in making the attitude that resources must be competed for.  So the game of the elites is oftentimes a smokescreen.   The masses must be kept ignorant and be told that they are free while resources are amassed and the struggle for supremacy continues or escalates.

The bombings of the Japanese cities by the US Americans, the atrocities and bombings of the Asian countries by the Japanese, the Communist and nationalist struggles going on at the time of the 30s and 40s, the Soviet and US complexities, the need for land in order to move military hardware, the propaganda, etc.  — all play into the game of controlling land (which are now nation-states) and water and air.  As I look at my life and my parents’ lives, I feel sad, and at the same time I respect their strength and survival.  Everything seems to me, contradictory.   The World Wars still live in all citizens and through all citizens in the system of institutions and identity.  Our systems of governance, the materials and institutions all have come from the re-configuring of worlds into what it is ongoing in every present day moment.  Along with the hibakusha and my mother’s memory, I work so that perhaps the world would arrange itself differently so that we can mourn, create justice, and to live more peacefully than we do.  At present, everything is a preparation for more wars.

The glee and happiness of some who built the bomb, dropped the bomb, etc. was the victor’s posture.  Don’t people feel it strange that a people from a compassionate democratic country would feel happy about killing the amount of people they were told would be killed in the bomb — 30,000 or so?  Even if for a ‘good’ cause?’  But how could the killing of civilians be a ‘good’?  Because they believed in the racism that was taught to them.  The number killed, of course, would be higher that the pilots and bombadier were told.  The fear and coming remorse of the pilot crew of the Enola Gay, were assuaged a little, by hearing of the dropping of leaflets on the cities before dropping the A-bomb which were warning the population that a bomb would be dropped.  This was supposed to make it easier for the Americans.  It was, however, not meant to ‘warn’ the Japanese.  In fact, there were two planes that flew over Hiroshima that day.  The first was a plane meant to surveil how many people would be outdoors instead of indoors at what exact time, for the maximum benefit of this bomb.  They needed as many bodies to experiment on so that further research could be done.   The Enola Gay went after this first plane, when it was determined that at exactly 8:15, the bomb must fall.  None of this is secret.  And the US President’s words to the US public after the bomb?  The public was told that Hiroshima was a military target.  Most Japanese that I personally have spoken to, who were knowledgeable of Hiroshima, told me that although there were some Japanese soldiers there, most of the military there had the largest concentration of foreign military and their families, as well as Japanese civilians.  Hmmm….

The Japanese government did NOT tell their public what was happening.  Even as Japan was starving and desolate before the bomb, the public was told that the Japanese were victorious everywhere and nothing was wrong.  Although much of the public were unconcerned except about getting food and living lives, this was meant to hide the realities.  Even after the bomb, some of the more hardline militaristic Japanese commanders, did not want to surrender.  According to most of the reliable documents I know of , the Emperor was not told the complete story.  When he visited Hiroshima himself, he realized that he was not being told the truth.  They had to surrender.  However, three months before the atomic bomb, many of the other Japanese commanders were already planning to surrender and their ruling committee was conflicted.  The hardliners wanted a death-wish to come true.  They hated themselves and wanted all of Japan to go down.

So, as we are pawns and pieces in elite war games, it should alert us to support more justice and healing-from-trauma movements, and social movements that bring about different ways of thinking and forcing accountability to be prioritized and for us to build different worlds, away from the joys of militaristic victory which requires death and assimilation.  We can live as diverse beings that are more self-sufficient, not depending on the war-makers, yet having to contend with their control over us.  The elite will not change their ways because we think it is better.  They have already proven that ultimately, they do not care, unless it is of benefit to them…….or not.

This has been my own unique way, this year, to give my commemoration of the 65th anniversary of that day of the Great Death, along with my previous posting on Hiroshima:

For further readings on Japan/US and social dynamics during and post World War II, please read John Dower’s works, which I think are collectively excellent:


Preservation Movements & Memory: New York’s Grand Railroad Stations

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In 1963, the originally magnificent, but then ignored Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City, was demolished.  Although, by then, more  US Americans were driving and riding the new automobiles and flying in airplanes, the railroad held a significance to memory for Americans during this time.  When parts of the station were slowly dismantled, rail service was still continuing and it has been told in many stories and biographies, that people could not imagine that the station would disappear so there was no public outcry at the time.

However, after the building had been destroyed, there was a huge public outcry from across the country, including Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy and several movie stars and music stars who became stars virtually by television and traveling on trains throughout the country, who loved traveling on trains.  The managers and owners of the Pennsylvania Railroad, along with the New York Central Railroad–who owns the Grand Central Station in New York City, were thinking of new ways to make money and at that time, could only think about tearing down in order to build new things.

After Penn Central was built and the public began to question the corporate actions of demolition, a huge movement helped to create more intense legislation regarding the preservation of architectural sites in the US.  Although some historians and writers credit this moment of Penn Central’s demise as the ‘creation’ of the architectural preservation movement in the US, there have been several preservation actions and initiatives throughout history, whereby certain grounds and buildings have been preserved.  But the Penn Central one, was perhaps the more intense, which carried news across the country rapidly through the medium of radio and television, as well as the national newspapers.

Although many complained of the noise and the general dingy and poverty-bringing aspects of some of the railroad track and terminal areas in New York City, most admired the beauty and grandeur of Penn Station.  For some, it was the memory of the glory days when cities and nations were building themselves and moving their identities out into the world through imagery and stature.  Many, apparently, could not believe that the owners who had built these magnificent buildings, would tear their own creations down.  What was forgotten was that for many of the corporate owners, the buildings themselves were not loved by these owners.  What they loved was the money and power they brought to themselves.  If it meant tearing down to make more……..well then??  Why not?   Even as the public, including important public figures, were protesting the idea of the future plan of  demolishing Grand Central Station in New York City, the owners were thinking of going ahead with it.  In the end, Grand Central was saved and is considered a national architectural treasure.

What, today,  is standing where Penn Central Station used to be?  Madison Square Garden.  Some have called Madison Square Garden an ugly monstrosity that would hardly be somethings that should’ve replaced Penn Central.

But such is progress and modernization.  We would work to preserve buildings of nations.  But we destroyed native american lives by the millions, and destroyed the lives of the poor of every ethnicity and race, including  European, in order to build what we have today in our cities.  Life is always contradictory.  Without preservation movements and people who have learned to follow laws, there would be ultimate chaos.  What new things need to be in life?  How will these ‘new’ ideas or things live?  Does there need to be destruction?  If so, who decides and how?  Who is marginalized and what is lost in a destruction?  How do we learn to care about such decision-making processes that may be built into our systems?  Remember, these are not new things.  There are many people and organizations today who bring ethics and democratizing processes in decision-making.  There have been many who continued to be destroyed, but that is not the point.  Just because it has happened over and over, does not mean it is universal or eternal.  Humans have a capacity to reflect on sustainability, the transformation of certain violences into useful possibilities infused with justice and care.

In an October 1963 editorial in the New York Times, it was said by an author who was saying ‘farewell’ to Penn Central Station:  “we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed”  “Farewell to Penn Station”The New York Times. October 30, 1963.

Penn Central history – wikipedia :

Grand Central  photos: evening front:  Trodel (; Rooftop sculpture: Javier Saenz (; Windows: Klingon65 (

Penn Central photos: courtesy of

Books on Penn Station:

Books on Grand Central Station:

For those readers interested in Railroad culture, trains, and steam trains, including galleries of stations, etc., please visit my new site blog on World Steam: