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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hashima/Gunkanjima Island and Its History

Hashima Island, or "Gunkanjima(Battleship) Island" as it is commonly called as its shape resembles that of a battleship, has been available for visitors to land on for the first time in 35 years, after the extensive restoration work done by the City of Nagasaki to make the island into a new tourist site. Hashima Island was built on the rock reef off the coast of Nagasaki, in order to provide a base for coal mining. Hashima Coal Mine was one of the major coal mines by Mitsubishi, and provided coal that fueled the fast economic development of the Meiji Period. However, the structural change in the energy industry in the 1960's from coal to petroleum led many of the coal mines to close, including Hashima. Residents quickly left, and all that was left were empty concrete buildings, and the whole island was abandoned. Michinori Sakamoto, President of the "Association to make Gunkanjima Island into a World Heritage site" says the island "symbolizes the warning from the future of the human kind, after we consumed all resources on this Earth." Tomohiro Shinkai, a board member of Oka Masaharu Peace Memorial Museum, the only peace museum in Japan that specializes in Japanese war crimes and colonizations in the fellow Asian countries, suggests that there is an important perspective missing in the glossy pamphlets that Nagasaki City made for prospective visitors to the Island.

"What we should not forget when we talk about Hashima Island is the fact that some 500 Korean and 200 Chinese forced labourers worked at this coal mine," Shinkai wrote in the July 2009 edition of "Nishizaka Dayori," Oka Masaharu Museum's newsletter. Suh Jeong Woo, who was taken from his home in Korea to work in Hashima when he was 14 years old, tells his story: "There were 7 or 8 of us in a small room, with each one of us given an area smaller than one tatami mattress. We had to start working on the next day of the arrival. I had severe diarrhea, and my health deteriorated fast. But if I took a break, I was taken to a manager's office and got beaten there.... I thought many times that I would jump into the ocean to die. Many of my colleagues committed suicide, or drowned after trying to escape by swimming to the nearest shore. People call Hashima 'Gunkanjima,' but to me, it was 'Kangoku' (prison) Island, with no hope of escaping."

Shinkai heard that in the briefing for Gunkanjima guides, it was suggested that they would not refer to the issue of forced labour in their guiding. The government wanted to stress the island as heritage site for tourism and industrialism. They want the Island to be registered as a World Heritage, so would not want that part of the Island's history to be highlighted. Shinkai sees a similarity between this and another fact. Once, Nagasaki City Peace Promotion Association told the Nagasaki hibakusha that they should only focus on their atomic-bomb experience and should not talk about Japan's war of aggression or their atrocities in Asia. Just as we cannot think about the a-bomb issue separated from the context of the whole war, we cannot separate the history of forced labour in talking about Hashima Island. Shinkai expects Nagasaki City to manage its tourism while it squarely faces its history. "What is being tested is the historical consciousness of Nagasaki City and the people of Nagasaki in how they understand and present the history of Hashima Island," Shinkai concludes.

A summary by Satoko Norimatsu of the article "The Past Exposed by'Gunkanjima Island"' by Tomohiro Shinkai. The article appeared in the July 2009 edition of "Nishizaka Dayori," a newsletter issued by Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum in Nagasaki City. The Hiroshima/Nagasaki Peace Tour visits Nagasaki from August 7 to 10 and will visit this museum, as well as many of the city's A-bomb related facilities.

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