Recuperating the Monstrous: Matter and Entropy on Hashima Island

Forthcoming, in the edited volume Monstrous Geographies, Inter-Disciplinary press, Oxford.

How can we respond to sites that are ‘ruined’ and made ‘toxic’ by layers of trauma, psychic, social and environmental? How can we reclaim their hospitality – that is, their potential as sites for living with and alongside the ‘other’ – whilst at the same time welcome their monstrousness? How can we encounter and engage with the logic of matter transmogrification and entropy manifest at such sites, such that these become habitable? In this chapter, we address these questions via reference to some of our work on Hashima Island, Japan. Bought by the Mitsubishi company in 1890, and mined for coal, Hashima played a vital role in creating Japan’s industrial and political revolutions in the twentieth century. By 1907, the small rock reef had doubled in size; this extension, formed from slag waste, was levelled, ready for the construction of dormitories for miners. Within this 1.2 square mile area, by 1950, people lived in and amongst concrete tower blocks, a school (with gymnasium and playground), a hospital, cinema, shops, public baths, shafts, stairways, parks, tunnels, staircases, a police station, a promenade, a swimming pool and an encircling sea wall. This wall, Brian Burke-Gaffney writes, ‘gave the island the appearance of a battleship riding the waves. The resemblance was so uncanny that a local newspaper reporter dubbed it Battleship Island…’, or Gunkanjima (軍艦島).


E=mc squared

Landing on Hashima I found myself shocked at how little impact the sight of visual decay, abandonment, and isolation had on me. Immersed in a world that studies sites of disasters, where geohazards change the lives of thousands within seconds, this was nothing new; seen time and time again over Japan, including at various disaster parks in Unzen and in Usu, both monuments of volcanic disasters. The trigger for abandonment in Hashima however, was one of economic prosperity rather than of destruction and this made the sight more palatable. In contrast the proximity of Hashima to Nagasaki brings closer the destruction caused by the Plutonium 239 Fission bomb, dropped on August 9, 1945, often referred to the ‘fat man’.  Arguably this day saw the future of humans change course. On August 18th the Glasgow Forward published comments by Bertrand Russell including:

The prospect for the human race is somber beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

It was the unification of numerous scientists that led to the Russell–Einstein Manifesto on July 9 1955 that highlighted the dangers of nuclear weapons and called for peaceful resolutions to international conflict. As one of the last things Einstein signed, it seems poignant that a man who dedicated his life to the development of our understanding of time and space also encouraged the development of the atomic bomb out of fear the Germans would make them. He clearly felt a deep sense of regret and implored sensible use of nuclear energy. E=mc2 is key to understanding nuclear reactions and in 1905 science began unraveling the mysteries of the nuclear and quantum level.  There is no doubt that Hashima would have been exposed to the rays and fall out of the bomb in small concentrations, the blast would have shattered windows, and the view would have been spectacular albeit utterly horrifying.

The quantum world is unlike anything we know; there are five main ideas:

  1. Energy is not continuous, but comes in small but discrete units
  2. The elementary particles behave both like particles and like waves
  3. The movement of these particles is inherently random
  4. It is physically impossible to know both the position and the momentum of particle at the same time. The more precisely one is known, the less precise the measurement of the other is
  5. The atomic world is nothing like the world we live in

It is the atomic world that brought great uncertainty in science, our understanding of the world and universe, and also presented an uncertain and complex future that we still grapple with. Technology and its evolution have brought upon society numerous disasters, creating our Risk Society, as Ulrich Beck coined. Photos of Nagasaki following the bomb look as lifeless and soulless as Hashima, an island also born and destroyed by the rise and fall of technology. Coal mining was sustained on the little rock only by new technologies that enabled mining to push deeper, obtain greater scales of extraction, and faster transportation of that coal to the surface. Deeper shafts, quicker elevators, electric conveyor belts, and automated sorters required less intense human labor and sped up the production of coal. It was the ‘fat man’ making profits that kept Hashima prosperous. Once profitability was greater in oil, Hashima was no longer needed. It is perplexing that people left Hashima, despite its rough co-existence with natural forces, yet the people of Nagasaki built right on top of one the greatest environmental hazard known to date.

Coal and nuclear explosions: both energy sources. One has significantly contributed to anthropogenic global warming and our biggest problem to date, the other (fusion) if used correctly could be the answer to many problems, but if used incorrectly could lead to a lifeless planet. Hashima and Nagasaki: two locations linked to power both natural and economic, hiding and telling many stories.

It is not the sight of abandonment that disturbs me, but the fact that whilst we can see and identify lessons learnt from multiple disasters, we still have not learnt to identify how to learn the lesson. Where does that leave our future?

Hashima Day One

Great day today, in many ways. We met with Professor Brian Burke-Gafney in Nagasaki, and he is a brilliant collaborator – calm, friendly, informed. Brian wrote the first article on Hashima to be published in English in the 1990s and is an expert about Thomas Glover, the Scottish engineer who did so much to help Japan industrialise in the late nineteenth century. We’ll meet with Brian tomorrow for a 2 hour lecture seminar about the island and its history (and will of course report back about that).

In the afternoon, we went on a commercial tour to the island and visited the place that we have looked at and imagined for so long now. The tour was run by the Black Diamond tourist company – in Japanese black Diamond is a poetic word for coal – and it lasted for about 3 hours in total. Saying that, though, we only spent about 30 minutes on the island, and that time was heavily supervised. We were kept firmly within bounds. No time to wander off and enter the buildings, which appear on the verge of imploding into their own ground….into the sea.

We weren’t really surprised by that as we knew that this was the official tour, and that the history of the island as well as any wandering would be sanitised and policed. I’m sure that things will be better when we visit the island with Brian on 30 July, weather permitting. 

The tour was a classic piece of heritage tourism, and no mention was made of the forced labour of Japanese and Korean prisoners of war between 1939-45. Very little either about specific human stories, the sort of stuff that creates imaginings and connections, and which allows you to feel.  

So strange to be in Nagasaki in many ways…thinking about the atom bomb; hearing about its hypocentre 500 metres above the ground; imagining the prisoners on Hashima having a perfect image of the mushroom cloud exploding over the city; hearing about survivors and fires raging….all the dead, and infected. Difficult not to make links with Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk, and his concept of atmoterrorism, a type of violence inflicted on the environment itself with the express intent of maximising damage.

So strange too to have visited Hashima island….a site of rubble…..The weather was hot, 100% humidity, but a sea fog engulfed almost everything, covering the mountains on the mainland, clothing sky and sea….riding through the whiteness until we came to Gunkanjima, the Gunship island, standing there in the mist rotting, stressing, breaking itself up more and more…

After the visit, so much going on my head and body that I find it difficult to say anything interesting about it….I feel like I’m some kind of data collector, but the data is atmospheric, mere mood stuff, intangible….will hopefully be able to process and shape it over the coming days….at the minute I’m just lost in it….standing sideways, tripped up…maybe not such a bad place to be….

I was interested by Mark’s translation of the final words spoken by the tour guide to his large Japanese audience who gasped in appreciation at his heroic discourse about the island’s role in Japanese modernity. He said that Gunkanjima (the island built by the Mitsubishi Company to mine coal) was in the process of returning to Hashima (the name for the island before industrialisation). 

These words are essentially futural, and to my mind, open up a philosophical space wherein the idea of a world, a world of (human) dwelling is being superseded by a different paradigm or value system based on what we might call the elemental. Whereas the ‘world’ is built, planned and known by human beings, the elemental obeys its own agencies and creates it own complexities. Uncontrollable…going on without us….maybe the way that Hashima is working on me now.

Lesson for the day:

If we are ‘to care for the future’, then, we perhaps need to start to dealing with the elemental, learning to embrace it and to reconfigure how we open ourselves to it — if we can, that is…