“These days the only things that land on Hashima Island are the shits of passing seagulls.” This is how VICE described the desolate Japanese wasteland back in 2009.
But seagulls (and their waste) are not the only visitors anymore: the island is now also home to Raoul Silva, James Bond’s nemesis in the movie Skyfall. Silva uses the vacant island as his hideout, plotting Bond’s destruction from its empty concrete skeletons. But Hashima wasn’t always so empty—exactly the opposite, in fact.
Once the most densely populated city on earth with a whopping 13,000 people per square kilometer, this island off the coast of southern Japan has been untouched ever since the population vacated in 1974 when coal mining—the source of employment for the island’s inhabitants—fell to the wayside. Mitsubishi Motors, who owned the premises, laid off their entire workforce in one fell swoop. Hashima Island’s residents packed up and fled to the mainland immediately in hopes of jobs elsewhere.
What once was a bustling community vanished overnight.
Stepping into the buildings of Hashima—nicknamed “Gunkanjima” or “Battleship Island” because of its unique shape—is like traveling back in time to 1974. Chalkboards are un-erased, leaving schoolwork from 38 years ago intact. Posters from forgotten movies hang untouched. An entire city is completely preserved.
These photos are from VICE’s visit three years ago, back when visiting the site was illegal. Two days after the article was published, the Japanese government opened the island to tour groups. UNESCO is considering anointing the island with cultural heritage protection.
VICE wasn’t the only forbidden visitor to Battleship Island. In 2002, documentary filmmaker Thomas Nordanstad took a former resident of the colony back to visit. The man, Dotokou, had moved to the island when he was four years old, and left with the rest of the population when the coal industry disappeared. In the film, which is thankfully on YouTube in its entirety, Dotokou visits his old schoolroom, his childhood home, and the house of a girlfriend who had since passed away in a very unusual trip down memory lane. Most people do not have their pasts preserved so completely that they are able to physically tour it in the way Dotokou is able to—sitting at his grade-school desk, pointing out the names of teachers on the chalkboard, tracing his fingers along the markings in the wall that measured his sister’s growth spurts.