Okunoshima is urban exploration for beginners. Actually it’s more like a vacation day than urbex – with an inglorious past, probably one of the darkest chapters in Japan’s history. And it’s an island with many names. In Japan Okunoshima (大久野島) is famous as usagi shima (ウサギ島), Rabbit Island. People with a more twisted look at life call it Poison Gas Island, though the Japanese term doku gas shima (毒ガス島) is way less common – but I doubt that this is the result of a more positive Japanese mindset…
Located in the Seto Inland Sea about 50 kilometers east of Hiroshima Okunoshima disappeared before if became famous. Back in the 1920s Japan signed the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that banned the use of chemical and biological weapons – but it didn’t say anything about development, production, storage or transfer. At the time being up to no good and started making trouble in the neighborhood, Japan immediately began to take advantage of that loophole. And with that Japan became the only country to use chemical weapons in World War II, killing an estimated 80.000 Chinese soldiers and civilians according to historian Chi Hsueh-jen! (Not only with the knowledge, but with the permission of Emperor Hirohito… which probably should have lead to his prosecution as a war criminal. Sadly, hard evidence was found only decades later by Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a professor of modern Japanese history at the prestigious Chuo University and a founding member of the “Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility”. My deep respect for the man, I’m sure his research made him more enemies than friends…)
The location of choice was the small and barely known island of Okunoshima, off the beaten tracks in case of a major accident, but still close enough to the important military city Hiroshima. From 1927 to 1929 an existing fish cannery on Okunoshima was “modernized” with a desalination plant, a refrigeration system and a power plant – and at the same time all foxes, martens, cats and rats were systematically eradicated. Okunoshima was erased from maps and Japan did everything to keep its existence a secret. Shipping routes were changed and trains along the coast had to close their window shutters, so did ferries passing the island. Plain-clothed members of the infamous Japanese military police kempeitai made sure everybody followed those rules and didn’t dare to sneak a peek. To avoid any activity on Okunoshima being seen from mainland Japan the old fish cannery was blown up, keeping the new installations intact – and the old pier in the west was replaced by a new one further south, closer to the research and production facilities. Huge storages for gigantic tanks were carved into the mountain and the soil was used to create ramparts as visual covers. In 1929 production began with high secrecy and under horrible conditions.
Since most of Japan’s leading scientists were under the supervision of western secret services they couldn’t be involved directly in the top secret base on Okunoshima. Production had to be executed by educated amateurs. Most of them were Korean forced laborers who worked in the production of medicine or soap before, locals looking for a good salary – and later on the military pressured more than 1000 local high school students into working on Okunoshima; at first only those with good grades in natural sciences, in the final years of WWII pretty much everybody available. The workers were given protective suits that weren’t really protective because the aggressive chemicals made the PVC brittle – thousands were injured because of that and during accidents, many died of their injuries because there were no doctors on the island and nobody was allowed to seek medical help on the Japanese mainland for the reason of secrecy. The productions halls were cold in winter and smoldering in summer. Imagine wearing a plastic suit in a climate that sometimes makes it hard to breathe even when in shorts and T-shirt…
About 6.600 tons of mustard gas (Yperite), lewisite, phosgene and other poison gases were produced and stored temporarily on Okunoshima between 1929 and 1944 before being put to use by the Japanese military. While the gases were tested on rabbits on Okunoshima the scientists there worked together with the infamous *Unit 731* on at least two occasions in 1940 and 1943 – they tested mustard gas on Chinese prisoners. (In case you don’t know Unit 731: Have a look at Wikipedia and make sure you don’t wanna eat soon. Their initiator and commanding officer *Shiro Ishii* was one of the most despicable people to ever walk on this planet, the Japanese Josef Mengele, maybe even worse – but thanks to some Americans, especially from Fort Detrick, the weasel was never prosecuted, although he should have been executed for his war crimes. Ishii didn’t even have to flee Japan since he was able to negotiate immunity for himself and his closest allies. Instead he lived a peaceful life with his family until is death in 1959 at age 67.)
After World War II ended in 1945 the remaining poison gas was dumped in the ocean, buried or burned – the factories were blown up or used as housing or storage (e.g. for ammunition during the Korean War). This was done by Japanese contractors under the supervision of the Americans, but what happened to the rabbits used as laboratory animals is rather unclear. Some say they were released by workers after the Japanese military left the island – others claim that they were all killed by the American military and the current rabbits on Okunoshima are descendants of a dozen pets released by a Japanese school class in 1972. One thing is for sure: Since all natural enemies of the rodents were killed in the late 1920s they don’t have to fear any predators and so they breed like… well… rabbits.
Okunoshima stayed a forgotten island for a few decades until in 1988 something unusual happened, at least by Japanese standards: A poison gas museum opened on the Poison Gas Island. Of course emphasizing the harsh conditions for the workers in the factory, because as everybody knows, at least everybody educated by the Japanese school system: Japan was the victim of WWII. Well, sadly that is the common self-awareness, which explains South Park episodes like Whale Whores (and Chinpokomon…) – episodes that show an understanding of Japan most people, including Japanese, don’t have. And so all the photos of poison gas inflicted wounds in the 2 room museum are not from WWII, but from the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. And while most ruins on Okunoshima have signs in Japanese and English (which is quite commendable since it’s unusual for any location that far off the beaten tracks!) the ones at the museum are mostly in Japanese only. (Which reminds me of the Peace Center in Osaka, where most of the surprisingly critical exhibits are labeled in Japanese only while all the others are bilingual, Japanese and English – shamed be he who thinks evil of it…)
Nowadays Okunoshima is a popular tourist spot, visited by about 100.000 people a year, many of them staying overnight at the hotel or the camping ground on the island. Not so much because of the poison gas factory ruins or the museum, but because of the rabbits. Like I said, no predators, so 100s of them are roaming freely, probably making Okunoshima the world’s largest petting zoo. Usually when I am on my way to an abandoned place and there is some noise in the bushes close-by it’s a snake. Or a boar. Or a monkey. Maybe even a bear. On Okunoshima it’s a rabbit. Or a bunch of them. Charging at any person that is passing by, hoping for some food. And they win hearts by storm! I came for the ruins, but I stayed for the rabbits. Seriously, I spent much more time taking photos of rabbits than taking photos of ruins – when I found out that there were remains of a Meiji era fort from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 I almost considered it a burden, not another photo opportunity…
Pretty much all rabbits on Okunoshima are hand-tame. The ones near the ferry terminals and the hotel are by far the biggest ones. I’m sure they get fed 24/7! If you like your rabbits smaller and a little bit more shy I recommend going off the beaten tracks – to the tennis courts (de-facto abandoned, at least some of them), to the former gunpowder storage or any trail up the mountain. Don’t worry, even there you don’t have to look for rabbits… they will find you! (And you don’t have to worry about snakes, boars, monkeys or bears – you are not even allowed to bring cats or dogs to the island.)
As for my day on Okunoshima: I did a full circle, starting at ferry terminal 2 and ending at ferry terminal 1, since I left on the second to last boat departing from the island; you can *have a look at GoogleMaps* as Okunoshima is a tourist attraction. And I refrained from renting a bike, because I wanted to take my time and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere on the island. The weather started out sunny and ended overcast, poison for photography, but surprisingly I didn’t mind. All of a sudden I didn’t care that much for the gas factory ruins. Many of them were fenced off by ridiculously low bars, but for once I did respect those barriers that were more symbolic than effective. After learning about the place’s history all those chunks of concrete blackened with soot weren’t that important anymore. Okunoshima’s history was just overwhelming. Why disrespect a place that saw and caused so much pain and suffering? When at the same time you can spend a relaxing day at the beach and play with cute little bunnies!
Going to Okunoshima was a wonderful experience and I kind of left with a heavy heart – I visited in spring on a warm day, probably still a little bit too cold to go swimming, and I had plans for the next day. But if you ever have the chance to go to Okunoshima from late spring to early autumn make sure to bring a loved one (as well as your kids, if you have some) and stay overnight at the hotel – just make sure to make a reservation months ahead as the hotel is very busy. Unless you are afraid of ghosts and fear that hordes of Chinese war victims, Japanese workers and laboratory rabbits will haunt you…
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Oh, before I forget: A shortened German version of this article, “Die Insel der Versuchskaninchen / Okunoshima – Zwischen Giftgas und Kaninchen” (The Island of Guinea Pigs / Okunoshima – Between Poison Gas and Rabbits), was published on Spiegel Online / einestages on Monday – you can *read it here*.
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