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.