The Two Stories of Gunkanjima: Dark Tourism and Whitewashing at Japan’s Infamous Battleship Island

By Sarah Rovang posted 02-06-2019 12:29


Preservation Leadership Forum is presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. For Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang will examine the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Blog, listen to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne. 

Earlier this year, fueled by scholarly curiosity and more than a little morbid intrigue, I found myself watching the “Japan” episode of Netflix’s “Dark Tourist” on the bus from Nagasaki to Kitakyushu. This series, which has spawned a slew of internet think pieces, finds host David Farrier exploring assorted (and often sordid) dark tourism hot spots worldwide—sites of war, disaster, assassination, and cultish ritual. What prompted me to wade into this mincingly apologetic yet ruthlessly exploitative show was Farrier’s coverage of a site I had visited just a few days prior as part of my tour of global industrial heritage. In the last five minutes of the episode, following 35 minutes of waxing poetic about nuclear disaster and suicide, Farrier visits the coal-mining island of Hashima off the coast of Nagasaki. Hashima is better known as “Gunkanjima” or Battleship Island—it has a distinctly naval shape, thanks to its abandoned concrete structures and fortified foundation. Now largely reclaimed land, Gunkanjima’s scant 16 acres housed as many as 5,000 people from the end of the 19th century through the early 1970s. 

Gunkanjima’s resemblance to its namesake is most apparent at a distance, when it appears to rise out of the water like a massive battleship. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Upon arriving at the island, Farrier dons a hard hat for a tour with two of its former residents. The group ascends into the ruined apartment where one of them lived as a boy. The camera lingers on the peeling paint, fallen walls, and abandoned household goods. Completing the trip with a hike up to the Shinto shrine situated at the highest point of the island, Farrier’s voiceover proclaims, “This island is absolutely epic. It’s haunting to be in a place that once was home to so many but now is completely desolate, all that remains are memories and ghosts of the past.”

Farrier concludes the “Japan” episode of “Dark Tourist” at the Shinto shrine at Gunkanjima’s highest point. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Divergent Interpretations

This experience of tromping freely through the ruins and feeling the corresponding titillation of trespassing in the past is about as far from the regular tourist’s experience of Gunkanjima as one could hope to get. For most visitors, the voyage to Gunkanjima takes place on a ferry with several hundred other tourists. Owing to the rough waters, only about half of the boats actually make the landing; the other half simply circle the island before returning to Nagasaki. If one is lucky enough to land, safety and conservation concerns restrict the visitor to a rigid pathway that connects three viewing platforms on the southern part of the island.


A tour group moves through the narrow sequence of walkways and viewing platforms on Gunkanjima. The diagram below uses GoogleEarth imagery to show this series of spaces from above. | Credit: Sarah Rovang


The “Dark Tourist” narrative also diverges sharply from the “official” narrative of Gunkanjima constructed by the Japanese government and disseminated through the mainstream tour experience and at the Gunkanjima Digital Museum in Nagasaki. The museum is marketed foremost as a compensatory public history experience, and while a few of its displays show Gunkanjima in its current state of abandonment, most attempt to resurrect a rose-colored past. The exhibits bring visitors not to an abandoned ruin, but to a bustling and profitable mid-20th-century island town. Rather than dwelling on the inevitable difficulties of occupying the most densely populated place on earth, the museum emphasizes the relatively high standard of living that the miners maintained and the tight sense of community borne out of their shared hardship. There are ample references to the many “amenities” provided as well—the public baths for the miners, a school, and rooftop vegetable gardens that supplemented more expensive fare brought in by boat. A recreated living room shows 1950s Gunkanjima in all its opulence. Color television, a commodity owned by almost every household on Gunkanjima while it was still a relative luxury on mainland Japan, helped islanders overcome the isolation of life on the “battleship.”

A life-size model of a living room on Gunkanjima in the 1950s, one of the few nondigital exhibits in the Digital Museum, reflects the high wages that workers on the island enjoyed relative to those on mainland Japan. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Even the difficulties of undersea mining are repackaged into a digital experience: a wraparound screen recreates the diagonal descent into the coal mines. In the museum’s imaginary, technology is purely redemptive and the islanders’ civic boosterism is a natural and beneficial outgrowth of Japanese nationalism. A message from Digital Museum producer Yuko Kuon is displayed at the entrance to the museum: “Gunkanjima is an island full of emotions, delight, anger, sorrow and pleasure, of community in the Showa period. This is, indeed, the industrial heritage, the living proof of the people who contributed to the industrialization of Japan.”

The narrative of the live tour on the island closely matches the interpretation at the Digital Museum. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Preserving Narratives in Conflict

Gunkanjima is one 23 historic places inscribed as part of a 2015 UNESCO nomination entitled “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution.” The original nomination package met with fierce resistance from South Korea, which objected to Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the role of Korean forced labor at Gunkanjima. Japan eventually relented, agreeing to mention Korean and prison of war labor as part of its official interpretation. If this history has been incorporated at the Digital Museum, it wasn’t evident to me. (Granted, I don’t read Japanese, and the English translations were partial and a bit haphazard). Regardless, Japan further fanned the flames of the controversy last year when it announced that a future museum might include testimony from workers on Gunkanjima claiming that either there was simply no forced Korean labor on the island or that Japanese and Korean workers were treated equally.

While the “Dark Tourist” interpretation of Gunkanjima emphasizes the ruinous present and the disastrous past, whitewashed “official” narratives look back nostalgically on the heyday of the island. Suffering is converted into perseverance; tragedy into an “opportunity” to improve safety protocols; and hard labor, both voluntary and conscripted, into “community building.”

Gunkanjima represents an early example of technologically and stylistically modern architecture in Japan, including the country’s first reinforced concrete building. Here, a brick facade is preserved among concrete remnants on the southern part of the island, near the access point for the underground coal mine. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Neither narrative, however, truly engages with the reason Gunkanjima was deserted in the first place—not any abrupt disaster, but the mundane vicissitudes of capitalism. As the island's coal reserves dwindled through the 1960s, Japan’s energy policy shifted simultaneously to favor oil. When the mine was officially closed in 1973, the population departed within the space of a week to seek out economic opportunity elsewhere. Gunkanjima’s unique, ultra-dense community, forged from the symbiosis of revolutionary concrete architecture, a coal-mining economy, and the daily interactions and activities of thousands of islanders ultimately proved fragile in the face of macroeconomic mechanisms.

Visitors on the tour boat jostle to get that perfect, iconic shot of "Battleship Island." | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Is there a middle road between fixating on decay and clinging to an idealized past? One of the few things that the “dark” story and the official story have in common is a focus on the island’s one-of-a-kind built environment. But the narratives again diverge when it comes to why preserving this architectural aggregation is important—is it a reminder of some glorious past, a link in the chain of Japan national identity, or purely a curiosity of modernist decrepitude inviting historical voyeurism?

For me, the Gunkanjima is useful as a cautionary tale about the human and environmental costs of overreliance on fossil fuels. As the Trump administration promotes a resurgence of “clean” coal, places like Gunkanjima offer material and architectural evidence of the impermanence and folly of similar myopic thinking.

Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.