3 Japanese Tourism Spots With a Dark, Hidden Past

Gunkanjima/Hashima Island

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 20.19.54

(pic: 軍艦島)

We last saw Daniel Craig pottering around here, dispatching noobs in Skyfall, but Hashima Island wasn’t always just a giant movie set. The island, nine miles off the coast of Nagasaki, is also known as Gunkanjima, ‘Battleship Island’, as it was bought by Mitsubishi in 1890. Though the company is primarily known as a car manufacturer, during World War 2 they made jigokusen (Hell ships), the nightmarish freighters of doom that transported slaves and POWs against their will.

Life on the isle during that period wasn’t so bad if you were Japanese, but if you were a Chinese or Korean forced labourer you were fed brown rice and shoved a kilometre underground to work in obscenely hot temperatures with next to no protective apparatus. Worst of all, some men were tormented by the thought of their wives being turned into sex slaves, as many were.

The total number of slaves buried at neighbouring island Nakanoshima is unknown, but it’s somewhere in the regions of loads and way, way too many. Even if prisoners survived the hellish conditions on the island they would later get sent (by Mitsubishi) to Nagasaki to help with the clean-up. Out of the frying pan and into the radioactive debris.

It’s been said before, but this place really was Japan’s Auschwitz. 

Perhaps the most bizarre element of this darkest of dark chapter is that the Japanese government has been campaigning for Hashima Island to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Bunny Island

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(pic: Wanderlost)

If a typical Harajuku model took acid, we imagine that she’d visualise something like Okunoshima, in southern Japan’s inland sea. Known in English as Bunny Island, it’s a famous tourist destination due to its hundreds of furry little natives.

Eye witness reports describe scenes of peak cuteness, but things weren’t always that way. For almost two decades, the island was a giant chemical weapons laboratory where over 6000 tons of poison gas was concocted… and tested on rabbits. Forget Animals of Farthing Wood,  this island saw more bunny bloodshed than Cher saw note corrections on her auto-tune software.

Ellis Krauss, Director of California University’s exchange program in Japan estimates that 80,000 Chinese people were killed by the weapons developed on Okushima. The ghostly frames of laboratory buildings are now home to the manifold rabbits which roam this little island nearby Hiroshima, crystallising the destruction wrought by both sides during WWII.

Sunshine City

Ikebukuro’s glitzy mall of joy boasts an indoor cat-laden theme park, a Studio Ghibli gift shop and even a rooftop aquarium. It’s a shopping citadel full of people buying warm fluffy things. Which is exactly why it’s even more remarkable that between 1895-1962, this was the site of Sugamo Prison. With a fearsome reputation and a 1,500 capacity this was the stuff of nightmare for Allied spies and political prisoners.

During the occupation, America used the facility to incarcerate war criminals including General Tojo, the man who (amongst other things) oversaw the Pearl Harbour attack. It was here that he wrote his infamous memoirs Confessions of a Douchebag*.

Now the prison is no more, it’s a glorious Avalon of Mexican food, My Neighbour Totoro memorabilia, holographic cats and strange labyrinthine underground travelators that stretch impressively across the east side of Ikebukuro.  

The only trace of the area’s murky past is a sombre stone plaque located near the entrance which reads ‘Pray for eternal peace’ but we’ll also note the mall’s frequently used katakana name, サンシャインシティ, translates rewardingly to Sunshine Shiti.

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(pic: Theodore Zarik)

 

* May not be a real book.

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