Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Greenless Island

February 11th, 2011 · 7 Comments


Abandoned human settlements are a pet topic ’round these parts, so I couldn’t resist the urge to post about the Japanese island of Hashima (aka Gunkanjima). Entranced by this haunting collection of photos, I tracked down a primer on the coal-mining outpost’s tragic history. As is so often the case with operations designed to pillage the Earth in the quickest, most cost-efficient manner possible, the men who did the dirty work suffered greatly—especially during World War II, when Korean slave labor was employed. The situation got markedly better in the post-war period, but Hashima still sounds like it was a rather glum place to make one’s living:

The population of Hashima reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959. People were literally jammed into every nook and corner of the apartment blocks. The rocky slopes holding most of these buildings comprised about 60 percent of the total island area of 6.3 hectares (15.6 acres), while the flat property reclaimed from the sea was used mostly for industrial facilities and made up the remaining 40 percent. At 835 people per hectare for the whole island, or an incredible 1,391 per hectare for the residential district, it is said to be the highest population density ever recorded in the world. Even Warabi, a Tokyo bedtown and the most densely populated city in modern Japan, notches up only 141 people per hectare…

The community depended completely on the outside world for food, clothing and other staples. Even fresh water had to be carried to the island until pipes along the sea floor connected it to mainland reservoirs in 1957. Any storm that prevented the passage of ships for more than a day spelled fear and austerity for Hashima.

The most notable feature of the island was the complete absence of soil and indigenous vegetation. Hashima, after all, was nothing more than a rim of coal slag packed around the circumference of a bare rock. A movie shot there by Shochiku Co. Ltd. in 1949 was aptly entitled Midori Naki Shima (The Greenless Island).

Mine-owner Mitsubishi eventually made a calculated business decision to abandon Hashima, thereby creating one of the eeriest ghost towns this side of Kadykchan. It now resembles something straight out of one of my childhood touchstones: the hollowed-out cities of the third Robotech series, set in a not-too-distant future in which an alien race has conquered the planet. The only thing missing on Hashima are the heaped-up carcasses of soldiers and Cyclones. (Yeah, Robotech was dark like that.)

More on Hashima via this 2002 documentary.

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    I remember having my young mind absolutely blown away by Robotech. Having been raised on the huge but bloodless battles of GI Joe, seeing characters actually die was arresting, to say the least.

    I hadn’t realized until later that de-regulation was a catalyst for all those shitty 20 minute-commercials with those stupid PSA’s tacked on to the end. Thankfully, childrens’ cartoons have evolved, and my son is living in a golden age.

    Of course he spends most of his TV time watching Beyblade which is basically a 20 minute commercial.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Huge influence on my creative development. But I recently tried to re-watch New Generation and it didn’t hold up. As an adult, I’m just a lot less tolerant of the weird dubbing and gaping plot holes (the latter being an unavoidable consequence of trying to graft a whole new narrative onto an existing Japanese show).

    The thing I really liked about A New Generation was how the series was built around a physical journey. I think that’s why I’m so attracted to stories in which characters must travel vast distances to discover their fates.

  • Captured Shadow

    Off topic
    I saw some interesting Rajneeshpuram pics at this photographers site.
    http://www.pbase.com/zidar/image/68313973
    worth checking out if you need a distraction

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Amazing photos! Thank you so much for the heads up. Think this is my fave:

    http://www.pbase.com/zidar/image/89350713

  • Davis X. Machina

    Excellent related piece at the unique Spike Japan blog: Ikeshima — Good-bye to Old King Coal

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Amazing reporting and photos from Ikeshima–thanks so much.

  • Genteel Decline | Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

    [...] When I’ve looked at cases of urban decay in the past, I’ve typically focused on two types of hollowed-out human settlements: towns that were suddenly abandoned, and those that transformed from prosperous to troubled as their principal industries waned. But there’s a third model of decay to be considered, and that is one in which a town goes gently into its good night. And there is no better example of this sort of demise than Ikeshima, which a treasured reader turned me on to after checking out last week’s post about Hashima. [...]

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