The Other Side

The crematorium island on the starboard side of the boat as we travelled out to Hashima raises its hideous aspiring head, and it intercepts the grey mist, while Hashima dead ahead, seems from its desolated and rocky summit, to threaten with instant annihilation.


It is impossible to imagine a situation with more edges than this rude undone mass of compound matter. Amidst the broken concrete and asbestos dust, everywhere are scattered the remains of dwelling and of lives lived; conveying an idea of chaotic fragments, stored away for the formation of another world.

The wind drones through a corroded angle bracket.

The ‘other’ side of the island is steep with tremendous valleys of concrete and wood, which seem ready to slide from their slippery base and overwhelm.

Looking away from Hashima, from the windows of the tower block, the prospect is un-obstructed, it is a map formed formed in the archive of the imagination: the elements appear to coalesce in the distance and are fused with each other; earth, air, wind and water unite in one general body.

A vast concrete jigsaw puzzle, crumbling and cascading down the rock; decorated here and there by romantically projecting foliage. Hashima surrounded by its crumbling self, a sea of concrete. The sea walls are breached.  A landscape truly sublime and magnificent. 

The anecdotal appearance of miners taking their three stage baths, the first of these still clothed, are then seen in numbers returning to their homes carrying tools. Inhabitants of infernal regions.

Lee Hassall


There was great anticipation in the lead up to us going to Hashima ‘proper’ (not the confined and disappointing tourist trip). Each of us had been nervous, with concerns permeating our dreams and putting us on edge. Vulnerable to the weather, we could have left with nothing, just a taste of what Hashima was, is, and will be. Being sea sick prone I was incredibly anxious and oddly sat at the back of the boat looking away from Hashima. On jumping onto the island its impact was immense. Like many other island explorers I could not stop taking photos, over 1000 in the 3.5 hours there. Time just seemed to stand still, and I can only compare the experience on the island like that to a skydive. Over too quick, so much information to take in visually that you never normally have the opportunity to see, disorientated as you tumble and torpedo through the air, exhilarated at the sensation, and a slight fear it could all go wrong. Like my skydive, my first words on leaving were ‘can we do that again? The ability to engage with the environment and construct its past was fascinating, but Deborah and I also wanted to investigate the forces present on the island and consider its future. It was a hot, exhausting visit, and I felt utterly drained, and thirsty.

A delightful meal with Brian was the perfect way to end the night, a sense of relief and celebration. Carl and I wanted more joviality so we went to the ‘Crazy Horse’ bar I visited in 2005. We left fueled with alcohol and deeply content. In the morning however, vomiting and diarrhea set in. Like an exorcism I retched until there was nothing left, a bodily rejection of fluid, the very essence of life. Such suffering in the heat, stifling, I had to get it all out until I could take anything in. Perhaps it was viral gastroenteritis, or maybe bacterial or parasitical, but I had been infected.


Photo: Carina Fearnley Continue reading


Yesterday we made it to Hashima again for a longer and more intensive mapping exercise. We were lucky. Normally, Hashima is off-limits to tourists, and we had to go through a lengthy process of application in order to get permission and also to charter a fishing boat to get us there. We went with Brian and Sakamoto Doutoku, a former resident of the island. This was only part of the story, however. At any moment, the trip could have been abandoned because of adverse weather conditions – storms, typhoons, high seas, big swells. Wave action. Luckily, for us, the weather held, despite the threatening clouds which surrounded the island and gathered over the peninsula.

Hassall has taken to calling me Carl Wavery…

We have much to thank Brian for. He arranged the trip, and his work has been instrumental to our thinking. He is a pivotal part of this project, and we couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator. A real shame that we won’t be seeing him for a while…

The time spent on the island yesterday is, as before, still working its way through my body – and again I have little to say for the moment.

Just two things, though:

As we were leaving the island on the small fishing boat and being rocked by the swell, Mark suggested that a major reason for the allure of Hashima is its form. Unlike the formlessness of the sea, and the jagged shapes of the nearby islands, Hashima is rectilinear; it’s human-centered, an affair of straight lines, rational. Bizarre then to see an example of Euclidean geometry in the middle of the ‘smooth space’ of the sea. It defies logic, and opens up a space for thought. Seductive, fascinating, a lure….Hassall’s remarkable rock again…

Then Deborah….

We asked if we could circle the island, and the captain of the ship obliged. Nobody sees Hashima from behind, as it were, catching it off guard, seeing it from the ‘wrong side’. As we did so, and concentrating on moments of stress and tension in the sea wall, Deborah compared this perspective to the ‘dark side of the moon’.

A tale of two museums

Human presence on Hashima has been largely erased in its popular imaginings. We are left instead with the “No Man’s Land” (無人島)of the countless Urbex photography books, like Kobayashi Shin’ichiro’s Deathtopia series.

Over the last couple of days we tried to fill in some of these human absences by visiting two museums – the Oka Masaharu Kinen Nagasaki Heiwa Shiryôkan (Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum) yesterday and the Gunkanjima Shiryôkan (Gunkanjima Museum) today. The two museums could not have been more different.

The Gunkanjima Museum is affiliated with official attempts to register Gunkanjima as a UNESCO World Heritage site (it’s already on Japan’s tentative list for inclusion). Recently refurbished, the museum is structured around a series of nostalgic images of school sports days, women shopping, packed cinemas and community festivals. It also has a by-now familiar narrative. Hashima, the pictures tell us, was a place of life and progress, of hardship but community, of work and industry, and ultimately of nation and modernity. This is no doubt important as a counter-balance to the 無人島 of the ruins fetishists but left me similarly uneasy.

One of the highlighted images seemed different to the others, however, recording an undated May Day protest that saw workers crowding the central corridors of the island’s apartment blocks. In Brian’s talk the other day, he hinted at a long history of workers’ struggles on the island going back to the nineteenth century. This image pointed towards that continuing into the postwar period. I wondered what had happened to this history of resistance? How has the island’s de-population and later absorption in national heritage and commercial tourism impacted on the story of human struggle?

The Oka Masaharu museum, by contrast, is cluttered and faded, a space designed and maintained by activist volunteers who want to focus attention on the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war/s in Asia and the Pacific. One of their key areas of recent work has been to document the forced labour of Korean and Chinese people across the region. In 1944, Hashima and its neighbouring Takashima housed a recorded 1355 Korean workers, or about 25% of the population. At the time of the atomic bombings, over 75,000 Koreans were resident in Nagasaki; over 10,000 were killed.

One of the more powerful displays at the Oka museum was a list of the many Koreans who died of unnatural causes on the island. I was struck by one, listed simply by the family name ‘So’ – a one-year infant whose family originated in South Gyeongsang province. The child’s cause of death remains unknown.

A group affiliated with this museum are responsible for collecting narratives of Korean and Chinese residents on the island into a published volume, called 軍艦島に耳を澄ませば. Here’s a rough and ready translation of one section of the story of So Jong-u (no relation to the child above as far as I’m aware), who was brought up by his grandfather after his father abandoned him:

“I’ll never forget it. When I was 14, a conscription letter arrived from the village office announcing that I was to be transported to Japan. Despite being called ‘conscription’ it really just meant indiscriminate forced labour. As you know, 14 years old is the age of a second-year junior high school student now. My grandfather strenuously opposed the decision, but there was no use. There were two people chosen from my village, and we were forced onto a truck. When we got to the city hall, there were several thousand gathered, ranging from 14 or 15 to 20 years of age. After a night’s sleep, we were moved from truck to truck over a great distance, put on a ship to Busan, then another to Shimonoseki, before riding a night train to Nagasaki. There were 300 of us who were then sent to our final destination of Hashima.

“As you know, the island is surrounded by a high concrete wall. All we could see was the sea, only the sea.”

One of the other people recorded in the volume, Kim Sun-ok, was 22 at the time of the atomic bomb. He recalls Hashima windows shattering from the blast. Seven days later, he visited Nagasaki, wandering confused around the city, a place that despite only being a few kilometres away from Hashima, he had never been able to visit before. Like So, he had been kept away by the sea and the giant concrete wall.

As we prepare to head back to Hashima tomorrow for a longer exploration, I am left wondering how the stories of its human inhabitants, particularly those not featured in tourist-friendly narratives, can be written into our project. Tomorrow I’ll be thinking of the forced workers So and Kim, the dead baby So and the hundreds of protesting miners as I wander the ’empty’ island.

On a white cloud

Over the past few days we have been fortunate enough to be directed to a series of maps of Hashima and the surrounding area in the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum, and to have found more at various specialty museums. It is via Nagasaki, of course, that Japanese scholars were introduced to all manner of European conventionalities, including map-making. Scholars interested in ‘Dutch Studies’ helped to popularise a neologism – chizu (or ‘land diagram’) – that captured a European emphasis upon mathematical accuracy, symbolic abstraction, and the consistent use of iconography. In the Nagasaki Prefecture Museum we were able to look at chizu, and accompanying documentation, from the 1860s and 70s that, whilst maintaining these conventions, very much revealed the individual ‘signature’ of their makers in terms of pigment choice, hatching style and brush stroke.

The map of Hashima from 1870 was beautiful and fragile. Drawn onto rice paper that sparkled lightly under the lights, it unfolded with a tenuous crackle. We held our breath as the folds threatened to turn into fissures, but did not. Like the other maps we had looked at, sketching out different kinds of land use, extant and planned, on the mainland, the outline of Hashima was austere, drawn in sharp pencil, but here only one colour – a mid-green  – was used to highlight a rocky outcrop that cut across its centre.  Around the island a sea of white paper extended, as though Hashima were riding on a cloud.

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Photos: Carina Fearnley

A huge larynx shouting

Hashima is a crumbling place. A place of edges. Alienating. No regenerative retreat or escape here. With an elemental purity one Korean miner made carvings from lumps of coal . When asked how he could have made such beautiful things out of the rough hewn matter he simply replied, “It was easy I just took all away the pieces that were not the waves.”

I see people leaving Hashima like damselfly; not on the wing, but emerging from excuvia, leaving behind their ghostly exoskeletons. Dusty objects removed from shelves leaving traces of their shape and form. I find Hashima deafening, the hollowness of it. It’s like a huge larynx shouting. 


Hashima from the shore

We went on a bus to see Gunkanjima from the land today, and visited the museum dedicated to the island in a small fishing village.

Talking with Lee on the shore, we were stuck by the violence of the sea, the waves choppy and relentless, breaking and spraying the concrete island.

Lee was reminded of Hokusai, and called the waves ‘Japanese waves’.

The museum was good – lots of images of life on the island: children playing, roof top gardening, a theatrical performance, packed streets, Pachinko, drinking in bars

Some of the images looked like they came out of some  Italian neo-realist film. You know the type: tower blocks, black and white, stylish women with great haircuts and clothes wandering through alleys.

Hassall stood on a chair and documented…. 

It’s good to see images of people on the island. It beats all those tropes of abandonment and dereliction that cliche Hashima, and hide its past. These tropes lead to Skyfall, a world without history, motionless pictures 

Within the remit of this project, it seems important to go through despair, perhaps even to reject it outright. Images of lost objects fossilise the past; they leave us with nowhere to go. Hassall and I have had enough of them….to stay with them is to sleepwalk, when everything is asking us to wake up.

Hassall is even more excoriating: he calls them ‘dereliction porn’ and dismisses them as mere genre, orphans in need of a father. For Hassall, that father is Atget who documented the demise of ‘le vieux Paris’.

I agree with Hassall, especially his comments that good images, images that reconfigure the world, are orphans who reject all fathers. Hassall believes that this is because the true image is an image that belongs to no one; an image that is content to drift and float.

Hassall appears to be thinking about a wave again….

An image cares for the future, then, when it cares for nothing but itself. That way, it points beyond the viewer, eluding their grip, setting off on a different course, willing itself to be remade (again and again).

Typically, this play of the image is paradoxical. The futural or sustainable image is an image that insists on expending itself, on serving no real purpose. See Allan Stoekel’s book Bataille’s Peak.