Recently I spotted an article in the Nagasaki Shimbun noting that the latest 007 James Bond film, Skyfall, features the Japanese ghost island of Hashima (端島), otherwise known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島) – ‘Battleship Island’. Readers of this website will undoubtedly remember my illicit account of urban exploration on the real island itself back in 2010. Recommended reading for anybody curious about how the island really looks these days!
As a tribute to the new Bond film, I’ve decided to upload some unreleased shots from when I returned to help film the documentary ‘Forgotten Planet‘ with the Discovery Channel on the island in 2011 – a follow-up of sorts to the original documentary ‘Life After People‘ on the History Channel. Enjoy!
Hashima: The Real Ghost Island
It might not look it, but the warship-shaped Gunkanjima is actually very small, measuring just 480m long x 160m wide. It was once the most densely populated city in the world – the packed apartment blocks being filled with miners and their families. The population reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959 – a density of 835 people per 10,000 square metres (100m x 100m) for the whole island, or 1,391 people per 10,000 square metres in the residential district alone. But it was not to last.
The owner of the coal mines, Mitsubishi Mining Company, shut them down in 1974 due to the rise in use of petroleum. With no further reason to remain there, the residents of the island were all forced to return to the mainland and, thinking nobody would ever return, left their many possessions behind to slowly degrade under the harsh sea elements.
Despite its small size, exploring the island on my first trip was very demanding, simply because I only had a couple of hours to circle the towering structures, shoot my pictures and leave before the first patrol boats arrived. My friend and I received quite a shock when a tourist boat, evidently the early bird, passed by the island recounting the history over loudspeakers!
While filming the documentary however, we were afforded two full days and granted access to pretty much everywhere on the island. The crew was a great bunch, made up of several local filmmakers from Nagasaki, director Jim Hense (sitting below), 3D cameraman Tom Collins, fixer Noriko Uchida, myself and of course, the passionate former resident of Hashima, Doutoku Sakamoto. Sakamoto leads a noble campaign to have Gunkanjima recognised as a World Heritage Site, as well as talking about his younger years on the island and the accompanying history on the official Gunkanjima tours that depart from Nagasaki.
Needless to say, as an eager photographer and urban explorer, I was giddy with delight at both being featured in the final documentary as an amateur historian, and the chance to explore more of the nooks and crannies on the island that I had missed on my first exploration.
One particular goal of mine was to find the elusive television set, which is simply breathtaking to behold in its weathered, rusting state. I found it, resting solemnly in an empty room, like an eye looking back into a world long since past…
Although I’ve yet to see the new Bond movie myself, from what I gather Gunkanjima was used as the inspiration for the deserted island lair of the villain, Raoul Silva. The actual island itself does not feature heavily in the film, but a set modelled on the ghost town was constructed at Pinewood Studios in the UK for filming purposes. I must say, some of the screens I’m coming across look pretty awesome! I will definitely head out to see the movie when it is released over here in Japan.
As lucky as I’ve been to document the island’s decay and talk briefly about its history, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of this city. The abandoned island is no wild phantom of the imagination; it’s a very real and very moving place, rich with both heart-warming personal stories and shocking tales perhaps best left unheard.
For now though, I leave you with these humble images. I hope over the coming years that I may again have the chance to visit this crumbling paradise and talk in more detail about its past and the people who lived there.
Until then, fellow adventurer!