There are many situations in life that evoke Bond, James Bond—a precise drink order, a cool new high-tech gadget, a smoothly navigated traffic jam. But all Bond likenesses pale in comparison to the sight of a small island 10 miles off the coast of Japan named Hashima.
One glance at Hashima is enough to conjure images of Javier Bardem’s sneering, blond-haired Skyfall villain who used the industrial ruins as his evil lair. But no criminal masterminds actually live on Hashima. In fact, not a soul has inhabited the island since 1974, when residents were booted from their home, which has come to be known by the nickname Gunkanjima, or “The Battleship Island.” It’s easy to understand the name’s origins: The small piece of land is covered with so many gray structures that it resembles a ship at sea, momentarily marooned in the choppy blue East China Sea.
Today, visits to the island are tightly regulated, but it is possible to visit the imposing, sinister outpost that was once key to Japan’s industrial might. And, indeed, the foreboding, craggy island actually appears in the latest Bond installment, though it was deemed too dangerous to actually film on.
For nearly a century, thousands of coal miners worked and lived on the island. Deposits of the valuable resource were discovered at the bottom of the ocean in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1869 that a Scottish businessman brought over high-tech equipment and tapped into the coal bed on a nearby inhabited island. Before long, Japan ushered in its industrial revolution. Entrepreneurs on the prowl for new opportunities soon tapped Hashima and a mining operation, that was quickly snapped up by the Mitsubishi Corporation, officially began in 1887.
In the early 1900s, the island expanded from a small mine into a whole community where workers and their families lived full-time. What was once one of 505 uninhabited islands in the region quickly became a bustling, crammed metropolis.
The small land mass was split in half, with work on one side, daily life on the other. Ten-story apartment buildings housed the workers and their families, while schools, shops, a hospital, and even a brothel allowed for a normal existence, despite the fact that they were all contained within a seawall miles from any big city. In the mid-20th century, the 15.5-acre island had become the most densely populated place on Earth.
When Japanese men were called away to fight for their country during World War II, Korean and Chinese workers were forcibly brought in to mine Hashima and keep Japan supplied with fuel and steel weaponry. They were housed in terrible conditions, packed into small rooms, and forced to work inhumane, long hours with little food. According to Cabinet Magazine, 1,300 laborers died on the island by 1945, some in accidents, others from illness, and a few in attempts to escape the island and swim to the Japanese mainland. Conditions improved after the war, and Hashima’s production allowed Japan to rebuild its defeated economy.
But by 1974, the coal that had made the island so profitable ran dry, and gas had become the most sought after fuel source. Hashima mining operations were shut down, and the island’s last inhabitants were ferried to nearby Nagasaki, leaving empty streets and abandoned apartments where the world’s most dense population once lived. In its short lifetime, the small island had produced 16.5 million tons of coal.
Despite being built out of concrete to survive the elements, the Battleship Island hasn’t withstood the test of time. Notoriously brutal typhoons have slammed the buildings into rubble, and 40 years without maintenance has left an apocalyptic landscape of industrial ruin.
The inhabitants are long gone, but the island is still attracting attention, and not just from the world’s most famous MI6 agent. In a current diplomatic disagreement, Japan has been pushing to get Hashima registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site amid South Korean objections. It seems the thousands of laborers who suffered during the dark period of World War II haven’t been forgotten by their neighboring home country, which fears its citizens’ involvement in the island’s history has been overlooked.
Looking at images of the island, it’s hard to not to appreciate the sordid conditions those who lived there endured. In the past five years, visitors have been arriving by the ferry-full from Nagasaki to explore the part of the island now open to tourists. Special pathways were built to keep visitors safe and far from the dangerous buildings. But that hasn’t stopped photographers and intrepid explorers from breaching the government fortifications to document the crumbling structures in haunting photographs and documentaries.
French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre spent four years photographing the island before publishing Gunkanjima, a book of their finds, last year. It juxtaposes then-and-now photos to create a stunning time-lapse of the island: on one page a barber trims his customer’s hair; on the opposing page, the same barbershop is strewn with debris, but the chairs are still standing. In another photo pair, a crowd listens to a speaker at a lectern in a light-filled conference hall. On its companion page, the hall’s ceiling is shown half-caved in, half-intact, suspended in a limbo much like Hashima’s history.
The layers of intrigue run deep through the history of Hashima, perhaps making its empty, gray presence off the coast of Japan even eerier. But an island any less menacing would fail to breed a villain who could hope to spar with James Bond.