We’d been warned about rough seas ahead. We were hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. For the first five minutes our tour group cruised in a stately manner, lulled in the direction of a sense of security, moving gently past the Goliath shipbuilding cranes of Nagasaki harbour, out to open waters. Then, as the ruined grey concrete skyline of our island destination came into view in the distance, we took a right turn into the poster for The Perfect Storm, and just about everyone on board lost their cool along with their breakfast. The boat roiled dramatically, coming closer to horizontal than anyone would have liked, left and right, left, left, deeper left. Then, when we reached our destination, its port side bashed violently against the concrete jetty. After several white-knuckle, rollercoaster-ride attempts at docking, our captain abandoned the idea, and we turned back. Gunkanjima would have to wait for another day. There was disappointment, but it was drenched in relief.
With its mountains of rubble and rows upon rows of smashed windows, it is weird and otherworldly. It is The Tempest, rewritten by J.G. Ballard
The official name for this tiny speck of land – the size of 12 football pitches – is Hashima, but few call it that. In English its most commonly used name means “Battleship Island” and, viewed from a certain angle offshore, its silhouette is uncannily dreadnought in nature. It was a mining facility until 1974, when it was abandoned to the elements, before partially reopening as a tourist attraction in 2009. Google have even mapped it, which surely represents a kind of wonderful, accidental video art. Most famously, a meticulous Pinewood Studios replica of parts of the island had a starring role as Bond villain Raoul Silva’s hideout. Indeed, there’s a lot of talk about Skyfall in the promotional material surrounding Gunkanjima. It is $200mn tourist bait. Conversely, until the Korean action movie The Battleship Island came out in 2017 – telling the story of 400 Korean workers trying to escape to the mainland – little attention had been given to the forced labour camp and Chinese prisoners of war that were here, but then what’s a haunted island without some dark secrets?
I’ve wanted to visit Gunkanjima for years, ever since I heard about reckless types illegally landing and having spooky Scooby Doo overnighters in the old apartments, still furnished with some of the previous inhabitants’ knick-knacks. I love abandoned, ruined, feral places. They’re like macabre museums that tap into something dark in the Marie Celeste region of the psyche, as if you might have visited them before and blocked out the memory. Either that, or they’re warnings that show you what could happen if everything went wrong.
Like the typhoon-lashed island that sits 20 minutes from its shoreline, Nagasaki is a place that might not exist at all. It really did all go wrong here. Once a part of the post-Edo era Samurai-endorsed industrial revolution, it was Japan’s most cosmopolitan city. Today its most visited tourist attraction is the Atomic Bomb Museum and memorial, strewn with thousands of chains of rainbow coloured origami peace cranes, commemorating the moment – at precisely 11.02am on 9th August, 1945 – that it was virtually wiped off the map.
On my second morning in the city, a gale was blowing. My heart sank. But we sailed again to Gunkanjima – and this time, we made it. I knew, as I walked out onto the first viewing platform, that it had all been worth it. Even at the safe distance that visitors have to keep from them, the ruins are thrilling. The wind was impossibly ferocious, with waves periodically crashing over the sea walls. The violence of the weather, and the mangled ghostly architecture, with its mountains of rubble and rows upon rows of smashed windows, creates something weird and otherworldly. It is The Tempest, rewritten by J.G. Ballard.
Our tour guide, Tomoji Kobata, lived on the island as a miner back in 1961, and while showing us the ruins from a sequence of platforms, told us about day-to-day life here. There were 317 households in a single block, and Japan’s first concrete high-rise was built here way back in 1916. (Although the first mining was as early as 1887.) Back in the 60s and early 70s, the island had its own cinema and supermarket in its very own “Ginza” district, along with playgrounds and markets, and when Kobata-san was a resident, a points system was in operation: your length of employment and status determined what floor you lived on. The lower the floor, the less you wanted to be there during a typhoon.
I was given permission – after months of media applications and form-filling – to get off the main path to shoot close ups of the interiors of the derelict buildings. It felt as insanely unsafe as much as a privilege – floors were bowing beneath ragged tatami mats as I marvelled at abandoned TV sets and dust-covered phones, empty sake bottles, and the remnants of a medical wing whose rooms were piled with scores of inoculation vessels. There were fridges and sewing machines that looked as if they had been recovered from the Titanic, and, standing askew in an office next to piles of official documents, a curious TARDIS-like box whose former function I never learned. There was a shrine on a rooftop, and a gymnasium with few of its floorboards intact, but with a giant graffiti mural of a figure – half tiger, half schoolgirl – sprayed across one wall. This was evidence of the thrillseekers who had sailed and slept here illegally, compelled to come here for the same reasons as everyone on my boat: to see precisely what Gunkanjima is like.
As we headed back to the safety of one of the viewing platforms, through half-flooded corridors and along a path whose ranks of aerial corridors were reminiscent of historic Shad Thames, I gestured at a wall bearing some scrawled kanji script, and asked what it said. The answer came: “It says Hashima Island has gone. This place is dead.” C