In the South China Sea, 15 kilometers off the southwest coast of Nagasaki among the thousands of verdant landmasses that surround Japan, lies a mysterious island. From a distance, Gunkanjima, resembles a battleship with a geometric silhouette with a dark grey hull and hundreds of perforated small windows. The island looks like a Japanese version of Alcatraz. Photographer Marchand Meffre conceived the series during two trips in 2008 and 2012.
Only 40 years ago, this tiny island was home to one of the most remarkable mining towns in the world and maintained the highest population density in the world. During the wave of industrialization, a coal seam was discovered on the tiny Hashima island. For decades coal production sustained Japan’s modernization and helped establish its position as an industrialized nation and imperial power. Workers settled on the island and the population increased.
Mine slag was used to expand the surface of the colony; piling up on itself like an ant hill. The small mining town quickly became an autonomous modern settlement (with apartment buildings, a school, hospital, shrine, retail stores and restaurants). One multi-storied concrete apartment block with its brutal and rational style followed another, until the tiny island became the most densely populated place in the world per square metre with over 5,000 inhabitants in the 1950s.
The concrete wall separating land and water was erected to protect the colony from sea assault and gave the island the appearance of a battleship riding the waves. It’s silhouette earned the island the nickname; Gunkanjima or Battleship Island.
Gunkanjima’s fortunes began to decline in the late 1960s, when the rest of Japan’s economy soared and petroleum replaced coal as the pillar of national energy needs. The mine closed in January 1974. Six months later, transportation to the island ceased and the last inhabitants were forced to leave. Since then, the island has become an abandoned ghost town.
Gunkanjima thus seems to be the ultimate expression of the relation between architecture, culture of labor and the principle of industrial modernity, which aims not only at innovation and growth, but also at the abandonment of any obsolete form of activity.
Images courtesy Marchand Meffre