The History of Gunkanjima; Impressive Island Once Flourished for Coal Mining

Gunkanjima Hidden places in Japan

Have you ever heard of Gunkanjima? It is an uninhabited island that is located approximately 17.5 km southwest of Nagasaki prefecture in Japan. It once flourished as a center of coal mining, which brought a number of huge profits to the country. What makes it special is the unique scenery created by the giant concrete buildings that were used as residential complex for those who worked there. Seen from the distance, the shape of the island looks like a Battleship, which is translated as “Gunkan” in Japanese! In this article, we will introduce a brief story of Gunkanjima and how to enjoy the intriguing spot!   

Brief History of Gunkanjima (in the 19th Century)

It is generally believed that the coal mine in Gunkanjima was first discovered in 1810. During that time, Japan was governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which opened in 1603 and continued to rule the entire country for over 260 years. Around the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which falls in the late 18th century, the amount of coals extracted on the island was relatively small, and it was recognized like a side business for local fishermen to get an extra income. 

In 1890, the island was sold to Mitsubishi, one of the most powerful and largest companies in Japan, and it became their private property for over the next 100 years. They started to develop the island as a new center of coal mining. Several mine shafts were opened, which enabled them to reach to the underground where more coals were stored. In 1897, the production of coals finally exceeded that of Takashima, another coal mining island situated in Nagasaki. As the development continued, other facilities such as an elementary school were completed to provide a better living environment for mine workers and their family.  

Brief History of Gunkanjima (in the 20th Century)

In 1916, a giant concrete residential complex was completed to accommodate a number of residents. The complex consists of 7 floors, and it was the first concrete residential complex in Japan, and newspapers repeatedly described the island as a battleship. This is how Hashima, the official name of the island, was replaced with the nickname Gunkanjima, which is currently used and recognized more widely.

The quality of coals mined in the island was highly evaluated, which dedicated to support the fundamental development of the modernization in Japan. It also led to a rapid construction of a range of facilities for mine workers, which included medical facility, educational opportunities, and even entertaining facilities. The first movie theater of this island was opened in 1927.
On the other hand, mine workers were forced to work overtime, which reached almost 12 hours a day. In the early 20th century, they started to hire younger workers, women, and even people form Korean and China to solve the labor shortage.

Brief History of Gunkanjima (During World WarⅡ)

During the WWⅡ, the annual amount of coals hit the peak with the production of 410,000 tons in 1941. In spite of the historical achievement, however, it also had a dark side which was clearly appeared in the devastating living environment of mine workers. According to some records, almost 40% of the population has lost their lives from 1939 to 1945 due to tragic accidents such as mine explosions. 

Brief History of Gunkanjima (After World WarⅡ)

The situation has drastically changed after the living environments were improved after WWⅡ. Labor Union was officially established in 1946, which resulted in the wage increase for mine workers. They were also able to have more leisure time to spend freely at a range of facilities. A number of buildings such as residential complex, public bath, hospitals, and schools were started to build during the period as well.  

In 1960, the population of the island reached almost 5,300 which made it the highest populated area in the world at the time! The density of population was 9 times larger than that of Tokyo, which can be very convincing how the small island was packed with residents.

The island itself functioned as an independent city with great infrastructure and essential services for residents. 

Brief History of Gunkanjima (Closure of the coal mines & come back as a tourist attraction!)

As a result of the Energy Revolution which encouraged the switch of energy resources from coals to oil and gas in 1960’s, the island started to face a decline and gradually lose the power. It was finally closed in1974, and the inhabitants had no choice but to leave the island. 

The abandoned island was brought back in the spotlight again in 2009, when it was finally allowed for visitors to enter the island. It was also officially designated UNESCO World Heritage Site as a part of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution”, which includes historical and cultural sites relevant to the modernization of Japan!

Highlights in Gunkanjima

It is strictly designated where tourists can enter on the island. There are three observation points that allows tourists to take a glimpse of the historical sites and buildings. Here are the highlights for each point that you shouldn’t miss!

Observation Point 1:

At this observation point, you can see the remains of the mine. There are only some pillars left but you can see the remains of conveyor belts to carry the coal to the ship. And there is the remain of the elementary school and junior high school, it is 7 story building and their school ground is the only park they have in the island so it was opened for locals after school.

What you can see:

  • Residential complex: Includes the largest residential building on the island!
  • Ruins of schools: Ruins of Hashima elementary and junior high schools
  • Conveyor Belt: Giant conveyor belt columns used for coal stock

Observation Point 2:

This was the center of the mine and there used to be many important buildings of mining, unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed by typhoons. From the 2nd observation point you can see one thing which stands out, the ruins of management office made of red bricks, and there was a public bath where workers clean themselves after the hard work.

What you can see:

  • No.2 Shaft: Ruins including stairs leading down to the No.2 shaft
  • Management Office: Office ruins made of red bricks.

Observation Point 3:

At this observation point, there were apartment complexes and the remains allows you to imagine how people lived in Gunkanjima. This island was mainly used for mining and there were not so much space for the residence. So they built many high buildings like these, and you can see the remain of swimming pool at the apartment.

What you can see:

  • Steel Pole Plant: Small structure used for machine maintenance
  • No. 30 Apartment Blinding: The oldest concrete residential complex in Japan!
  • No. 31 Apartment Blinding: Another giant building constructed to prevent the wave damage

How to enjoy Gunkanjima?

There are several cruise companies that offer a range of exciting tours.

Please note that the schedule of each tours may vary according to the weather condition. It could happen especially in fall, when the cruise operation can be affected by typhoons.    
And of course, there is no vending machine or bathroom on the island, so don’t forget to bring your water. Wearing sandals and heels are not allowed, so wear some comfortable shoes.

Don’t forget to check out our private tour!

If you need some help to organize your trip to Akita, you should definitely check out our private tour including English guide. We’re glad to help you make your trip to Akita a safe, comfortable, and unforgettable memory!

1. Tokyo 1–Day Highlights Private Walking Tour (8 Hours)

Join our private walking tour to explore the top highlights in Tokyo!

Tokyo 1–Day Highlights Private Walking Tour (8 Hours) - JapanWonderTravel.com
First, we will meet you at your hotel, then take you to the Tsukiji Fish Market and let you enjoy the atmosphere of the world’s biggest fish market. After that,

2. Nagasaki 1–Day Highlight Private Walking Tour (8 Hours)

Nagasaki Private Walking Tour - JapanWonderTravel.com
Nagasaki was the only place that had a connection to the world during the Edo era. (17th-19th century). During this time Nagasaki was the only place acting as

Explore the exotic city full of historical sites before heading to Gunkanjima!

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Gunkanjima is a great tourist attraction that is worth visiting at least once in a lifetime. More than that, it offers visitors an opportunity to learn about the bright and dark sides of the history hidden in the abandoned buildings standing there silently. Explore the island and deepen your understanding of the unique UNESCO World Heritage Site!   

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