10 August 2011

Ghost Island, Revisited

In 1986, four years after settling in Nagasaki, I told my Japanese friends that I wanted to visit the former coal-mining island of Hashima.  Many of them drew a complete blank, even when I used the better-known nickname "Battleship Island." Others laughed and tried to convince me to give up the idea because all I would find there was a cluster of empty, rotting buildings.
I went anyway (thanks to another friend with a boat), fascinated by the story of a tiny island once inhabited by the most densely populated community on Earth but abandoned 12 years earlier when oil replaced coal in national energy schemes.  The article I wrote in the wake of the experience, entitled "Hashima: The Ghost Island," can be seen here and a shortened but illustrated version here.

A quarter of a century has passed since that first visit.  In the interim, one typhoon after another has swept up the East China Sea, battering the island with winds and high waves, gouging holes in the sea wall, ripping out foundations, and washing away wooden structures and other remnants of human habitation.
The following photographs taken in 1986, juxtaposed with photographs of the same sites taken during a visit in 2010, demonstrate the mighty erasing power of natural forces.

A row of shops on Hashima's former shopping street,
broken down in 1986, eradicated in 2010.

Setoguchi Barber Shop was still relatively intact in 1986.
Below, the same spot photographed in 2010.

Erosion is not the only thing changing Hashima's profile.  The present owner, Nagasaki City, has decided to turn the island into a tourist attraction, quite an irony considering the long years of indifference and neglect.  Visitors willing to fork out ¥3,900 can now go ashore and stand on a fenced-off concrete walkway -- jarringly white against the grimy backdrop of crumbling buildings -- and view the devastation from a safe distance.  Hashima has also been added to a list of tentative world heritage sites, another way in which local government and civilian interests hope to cash in on the notoriety while supposedly preserving the island for the benefit of future generations.

But the beauty of Hashima lies in its decay.  The best it offers is a lesson on the transience of human projects and a glimpse into the future of unsustainable development.

This mosaic graces the wall of the vestibule in the former Hashima Elementary and Secondary School.  Crafted by pupils, it exudes the sense of prosperity and optimism that predominated in the 1950s when the island population reached a peak of over 5,200 people.  I photographed it in 1986, struck by its expression of love and pride and its symbolism for humankind.  When I revisited Hashima in 2010 I was astonished to find it virtually unchanged, protected from wind and rain by the thick concrete walls and overhang of the vestibule.