Gunkanjima Island: A Ruin, For 40 Years, Untouched

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Suppose you were a submarine captain. At a certain moment, a subordinate officer assigned to a periscope duty says “An enemy ship ahead!” In a moment, you must order “Launch a torpedo aimed at the enemy ship”. It hits the objective but the huge battleship is not utterly unmoved. It is because the “ship” is not a warship but just an island very much like an overwhelming battleship. This was a true story occurring during the World War Ⅱ. The small island is still nicknamed “Gunkanjima” or Battleship Island. (According to an estimate, it is said that the submarine aimed at a transport boat mooring close by the island.)



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(Photo: Public Domain)


Ruined buildings



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( Photo by (c) The writer of this article)


Former Reservoir




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(Photo: Public Domain)


Battleship “Tosa”



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( Photo by (c) Blue Wind)


Battleship Island looking like the photo above

Is This a Deserted Island! Why?

Speaking of an inhabitant island, you associate the “Robinson Crusoe”. The small island he lived a lonely life was blessed with nature’s bounty, but the Battleship Island seems a fortress whose embankments are encased in concrete.

Originally, it was not so much an island as reef which was developed into three-time larger than an original by several reclamations. For what on earth?


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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)



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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


Airborne imagery


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( Photo by (c) Tomo.Yun )


Black Diamond: Coal


The Beginning as a Coal Island

For this reason, coal also known as black diamonds was discovered under this reef around the end of the 19th century. About 40 years prior to the discovery, Japan brought to an end the Isolation Policy which had long lasted for over 250 years and vigorously pushed forward modernization.

Great majority of Japanese exports, it is unbelievable in the now, was only silk and tea. And then, Japan developed light manufacturing industry like cotton textile and took a big step toward the heavy manufacturing. At that time, the “Blood and Iron Speech” by German chancellor Otto Bismarck was symbolic of the age.

Iron manufacturing requires iron ore and coal. Although Japan is poor in natural resources, it was fortunate that coal for iron could be obtained domestically. Japan, at that time, constructed around 800 coal mines including the Battleship Island.

Then laborers began to settle in the small island. The total area is 480-meter (1,575 feet) in length and 160-meter (525feet) in width after finishing all reclaim. How did inhabitants, labors and their families live a daily life?

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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


Undersea Pit

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( Photo by (c) The way to world heritage Gunkanjima)


Most vibrant marketplace in Gunkanjima

July 11, 1971


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( Photo by (c) The way to world heritage Gunkanjima)


Park surrounded by buildings



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( Photo by (c) The way to world heritage Gunkanjima)


A pier named “Dolphin”


The Prime


Until 1960s when Japan changed its energy policy from coal to petroleum, coal mine towns all over Japan had flourished in the highest degree. The Battleship Island was also one of the coal “towns”, which in particular was equipped with the most modernistic facilities.


In around 1960, this small island whose total area was equal to the five baseball fields except the area of spectators’ seats accommodated about 5,300 people. The population density was 83,600 per square kilometer! That of even Hong-Kong is now 6,500. Both are beyond comparison.

Furthermore, a variety of facilities such as shops, schools, hospitals and even a movie theater were constructed for laborers and their families, which evidenced a great deal of prosperity and welfare.

Nearly 100 years ago, though there are still many wooden houses in Japan, a ferroconcrete building for apartments was first build. (Commercial use of ferroconcrete already existed.) People of that time looked on the scenery as a real wonderland, although there were no choice but to make buildings tall due to small spaces there.

On the other hand, labor in coal mines is exhausting and dangerous. It is fresh in our mind that a mine accident happening in Chili shut away 33 people for over three months. That was why laborers on the edge in the Gunkanjima were highly paid than ordinary workers. When the penetration rate of TV was about 20 percent all over Japan, in the island the number surprisingly reached almost 100 percent!



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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


Former residential area



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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


Former administration building


Mine Closure Down to the Ruin

Ups and downs inevitably comes with our lives. So did this prosperity. As a great number of major oilfields were discovered one after another in the Middle East, coal as dominant energy source was replaced by petroleum. Coal could not change with times in the terms of cost and efficiency.

In Japan, many coal mines were forced to close, and relevant towns became obsolete and suffered from depopulation.

The fate of Battleship Island was the same as those towns. The only answer was the choice to close the mine. Unlike other mine towns, this island finally became a deserted island when all residents had to leave in 1974. From the aspect of protecting people against dangers such as the collapse of aging buildings, a whole area was off-limits for 35 years except special and partial exceptions. And then there were none.


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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)


Gunkanjima or Battleship Cruises

Recently, much attention has been paid to ruins themselves. A world-wide famous and typical ruin spot is Pompeii in Italy, and here in Japan the Battleship Island or Gunkanjima is the most popular with tourists.

For about 40 years, this island has been exposed to rain and sea wind damage. All the more reason, the distinctive characteristics that other sightseeing spots don’t have attract many people. (Actually, there were those people who illegally entered the island by chartering a fish-boat.)

Until 2009, the city of Nagasaki in Kyusyu having charge of the island had improved facilities such as a pier and walkways, which enabled tourists come on shore. Today, thanks to those efforts, various cruise ships sail to the island. In days past, this Gunkanjima could be seen from a long distance on the sea. Today, however, we can freely land this untouched ruin island!

Shipping Companies Offering Gunkanjima or Battleship Island Cruises

(Alphabetical Order)


Gunkanjima Cruise (English Version)

Seaman Firm

The Gunkanjima Concierge Company (English Version)

Yamasa Shipping Co., Ltd.  (English Version)


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( Photo by (c) The prefecture of Nagasaki)





A featureless reef was changed into a very strange island caused by the fact that fossil fuel named coal, the most valuable at that time, was discovered. As the times changed, all human beings there disappeared.

In reversal, they suddenly pay attention to this island again both nationally and internationally. If the Battleship Island had his own mind much like us, how would he feel about his new transition?

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