Gunkanjima Island (Battleship Island)

A coal mining operation from Mitsubishi Mining Co., Ltd.

Gunkanjima Island (Battleship Island)

Located in Takashima-cho, Nagasaki City, Hashima Island is also known as Gunkanjima Island (Battleship Island). It served for 84 years as a coal mine operated by Mitsubishi Mining Co., Ltd. (currently Mitsubishi Materials Corporation). The name Gunkanjima comes from the island’s appearance of it floating on the sea with smoke billowing from its chimneys, making it look like a giant battleship. Gunkanjima became world famous in 2015 when it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a part of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining.” In this feature, we look back at the history of this facility that supported Mitsubishi’s mining business.

Beginning of Hashima Island and Mitsubishi Mining

Following a 50-minute boat ride from Nagasaki, we arrive at Gunkanjima Island, part of which was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2015. The island measures 480m from north to south and 160m from east to west. This is approximately three times its original size after six reclamation projects were carried out to expand the island. Now abandoned, it was owned by Mitsubishi Mining Co., Ltd. (currently Mitsubishi Materials Corporation) and supported its coal mining business for over 100 years.

Coal was found on Hashima Island around 1810. It was heavy coking coal of higher quality than coal generally mined in Japan. Mining started in earnest in around 1870. In 1883, it was owned by Sonrokuro Nabeshima, the feudal lord of the Nabeshima Domain, who had worked to modernise the operations. In 1890, it was purchased by Mitsubishi Mining, which had operations at the Takashima Coal Mine near Hashima Island. The purchase price was 100,000 yen, the equivalent of 2 billion yen in today’s economy.

Beginning of Hashima Island and Mitsubishi Mining
A panoramic view of Hashima Island (Gunkanjima). / Currently, entry to the island is prohibited except for some areas. The island has also been used for filming movies.

History of Hashima Coal Mine

Coal Mine continued for 84 years after Mitsubishi Mining’s purchase. Production can be classified into four distinct periods. The first, between 1890 and 1914, was mainly focused on expansion and Mitsubishi Mining accelerated coal production to between 100,000 and 200,000 tons annually. They built housing and other facilities for workers and an elementary school was built to accommodate the increasing population of children in the workers’ families.

The second period between 1914 and 1945 was the prewar production period when deep mining and technical innovation contributed to a record high production of 410,000 tons. This level of production continued until Japan’s defeat in World War Two. Earlier in this period in 1916, when most of the housing in Tokyo was one-story structures, Japan’s first reinforced concrete apartment building, Building No. 30, was built on Hashima.

During the postwar period between 1945 and 1964, coal production decreased. However, an annual rate of 300,000 tons per year was maintained and the population was gradually increased to 5,259 by 1959, the highest in Gunkanjima’s history. Population density at that time was nine times that of Tokyo.

History of Hashima Coal Mine
A photo of the area where a coal storage is located. A passenger ship seen in the background has started on a voyage. / Showing the east side of the Japan’s first reinforced concrete apartment block, built in 1916 (Building No.30). / A movie theater. Mitsubishi gave priority to this to enrich employees' lives. / A seawall included in the World Heritage. It is under repair, therefore stone masonry with red clay and lime as adhesives (called the Amakawa method) is exposed. / Children playing baseball inside the empty municipal swimming pool, around 1952. / A giant multiple-dwelling complex with more than 300 units, from around 1970.

Life at Hashima Coal Mine

Along with the expansion of production at Hashima Coal Mine, and even with limited space, living conditions were always being improved. Hashima Island became home to a wide range of facilities beyond those related to coal mining operations. Residents had housing and many other facilities that enhanced their quality of life. With elementary and junior high schools, hospitals, temples, a movie theater, hair salons, pachinko halls, mahjong parlors and bars, the island had just about everything available the same as cities on the mainland did.

In addition, there were many events on the island. Residents enjoyed summer and May Day festivals, plus recreational activities both on and off the island were organized by the residents themselves. The Yamagami Festival on April 3 of each year was also a big event. Hashimia Shrine was home to the mountain god and this place was where the employees and their families prayed for safety. On festival days, the entire island was excited about the wide range of events that took place and in addition portable shrines blessed by the priest at Hashima Shrine were paraded through the streets by residents.

Closure of Hashima Coal Mine Inclusion in the World Heritage Sites

During the restoration and final period between 1964 and 1974, due to the shift of the government’s energy policy from coal to petroleum, Mitsubishi Mining laid off and reassigned employees and the population of the island also decreased. While other coal mines closed one after another, however, Hashima Coal Mine significantly increased production despite the decrease in population through the full-scale mechanisation of mining in new coal seams. Production continued at 300,000 tons annually, however, due to a decrease in the demand for coal, it was announced in 1974 that Hashima Coal Mine would close. In 2001, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation donated Hashima Island to Takashima Town. In 2005 a merger between Nagasaki City and Takashima Town placed Hashima Island under the administrative control of Nagasaki City; and in 2008, Gunkanjima was opened to the general public. In the following year, they proposed that Hashima Island be recognized as a Site of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution. In 2015, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a part of “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution.” This has increased its popularity as a travel destination for visitors. So even after closing, Gunkanjima Island has remained an important part of Japan’s industrial history. The island now serves as a reminder of the hardworking people who supported the growth of Mitsubishi and the modernisation of Japan.