About to enter the scruffy ferry ticket office in the Nagasaki port of Seto one leaden noon to book my passage to Ikeshima, I was attacked by a severely depilated Dachshund, its coat a canine topiary. The reception inside was no more welcoming. Three knocks at long intervals on the frosted slit of a waist-high window finally elicited a pair of gnarled, disembodied hands. Money and tickets were shoved in one direction and the other. “Come back in half an hour”, rasped a gnarled, disembodied voice. “And don’t forget your vehicle roadworthiness certificate.” Quite why a vehicle’s roadworthiness has to be proven for a seaborne voyage has always baffled me, but such is the custom of the land.
Lunch came from the Seto Shopping Center, a huge barn of immense decrepitude, where the stench of fish well on the way to its sell-by date saturated everything, even the women’s clothing section, and a bento lunchbox cost just Y198 ($2.30), half a central Tokyo price.
The ferry was sailed in but sturdy enough. I had half-expected to be the only person aboard, but four other vehicles clustered in the hold, three small trucks and a Black Cat parcel delivery van. Still, the ferry crew outnumbered the passengers. They took great interest in my Tokyo plates.
“What are you going to do on Ikeshima,” one asked with a trace of incredulity. “Research?”
“You could call it that.”
“You’d better catch the five o’clock ferry back. That’ll give you plenty of time. Don’t wait for the last sailing. The weather’s bad and we might cancel. You don’t want to be stuck on the island.”
“Is there nowhere left to stay?” I knew there had been as late as 2006.
“No, there’s nowhere now.”
The truck drivers chose to sit out the half-hour voyage in the comfort of their cabs, which meant I had the sixty-odd high-backed industrial-green vinyl chairs and ancient cathode-ray TV of the ferry lounge to myself.
I gasped in marvel at the ferry schedule posted in the lounge: there are fewer than 300 folk left on Ikeshima but 14 ferries a day tramp in and out of the island’s port, nine from Seto and five from Kamiura, further south along the coast. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that every man, woman, and child on the island could ship out and ship in twice a day and the ferries would still not be full. Whether the ferry operator, which does not even have a website, receives subsidies I know not, but either way, this is a fine example of inertia—or indulgence—at work, and not the last.
We chugged out to sea, skirting Matsushima, an old coal and whaling island, which although it lies only a kilometer or so from land, has never been bestowed with a bridge, perhaps in perverse punishment for the loss of its main mine, as long ago as 1934, after a rockfall left 54 miners dead. The island gave its name to a company called Mitsui Matsushima, now the very last mining firm listed in the mining sector on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
After rounding Matsushima, Ikeshima soon loomed into view.
As we neared port, row after row of sandy gray apartment blocks, starkly Soviet in their utilitarian boxiness, revealed themselves against the drab green backdrop.
The story of Ikeshima is simply told. Once upon a time, before the war, it was a blameless little island on which some 300 folk scratched a living from the seas and the hills. No one had noticed that it sat atop a bed of coal. Then after the war came the engineers and geologists and technicians from Mitsui Matsushima, and the company began buying up the island; to this day it still owns more than half of it. Commercial mining began in 1959, with Ikeshima turning out to be the last coal mine to open its shafts in Japan. It opened in the teeth of mine closures across the rest of the nation, as the central government’s energy policy mandated a shift from coal to oil, but against the odds it prospered for a while. At its 1970 zenith the island, 4km in circumference, was home to some 8,000 miners, their families, and the tradespeople that fed off them in symbiosis, making it about as densely populated as any place on earth.
As Ikeshima was the last conventional pit-coal mine in Japan to open, so it was the last to close (one sea-bed mine remains in operation in Kushiro, Hokkaido). The final shift left the mine on November 28, 2001, bringing down the sooty curtain on two centuries of pit-coal extraction in Japan. At the end of coal, the island counted 2,719 residents; just a year later, all but 720 had fled. In western welfare states, people might have stayed on, subsisting on handouts; in Japan, where the dole is meager and ideas about the dignity of work are hard-wired into the national consciousness (best not to ask by whom), almost everyone packed their bags at once.
A technology transfer program that ran from 2002 to 2007 brought trainees from Southeast Asia; what they made of their sojourns on the island is far beyond my ken, although there is a stilted archive of the games and ceremonies and parties they were put through here. Ikeshima must be the only place in Japan where the “Do not trespass” signs—and there are many of them—are also in Bahasa Indonesia.
The bow mouth of the ferry opened up and disgorged us at the port, where stray cats lolled on abandoned cars, catching precious if watery rays of rainy season sun between the showers.
Kittens teetered in the frail way that only feral ones do. The doors of the spartan ferry ticket office bore signs admonishing that they be kept closed at all times, on account of the cats.
From the port, I headed along the shore to the district of Goto (郷東), the only sizeable area of housing for non-mining civilians on the island, which had once been an entertainment district of restaurants, bars, and snacks for miners heading down the hillside on their way home to their sandy boxes. No dog barked, no bird cried, not a soul stirred—but then there were no souls to stir, only ghosts.
Retracing my steps to the port, I stopped off at the desalination plant to indulge in a spot of kojo moe (工場萌え, factory infatuation).
Ikeshima, as its name—Pond Island—suggests, used to have ample fresh water, but the pond was dredged and became the harbor. Thirsty miners needed water, and so this desalination plant, Japan’s first, was built in 1966.
Around the back of the plant, ivy devoured a van.
The sandy apartment boxes are home to many of Ikeshima’s last stayers-on, though only a fifth at most are still occupied. The stayers-on bustled around to keep up appearances, taking down election posters, burning rubbish in deserted parking lots, and chatting outside an electrical store that had somehow survived.
A mini-roundabout near the port had been decorated with ghoulish pumpkin faces, aliens, frogs, and cats in silent chorus.
A middle-aged woman appeared by my side. “Do you like them?” It was a reasonable enough question to ask. “My husband made them.”
“Why, they’re delightful,” I lied.
She turned out to be the proprietor of the last restaurant on the island, Minato-tei.
Born in Sasebo, she had been on the island 30 years. Across the road, astonishingly, construction work was in progress, on the Ikeshima Development Center.
“Is that a new building they’re putting up?”
“No, it’s just being renovated.”
“What’s the redevelopment plan?”
“Coal tourism,” she exclaimed animatedly. “Do you know how much they’re raking in down at Battleship Island?”
I confessed ignorance.
“Y600mn (about $7mn) a year.”
“Well, in a couple of decades, you’ll be in the same state of dereliction as Battleship Island,” I blurted out, and immediately began to worry that I’d said the wrong thing. No one wants to bring ruination on themselves, after all, do they?
“Yes, that’s what we’re hoping! After all, nothing’s been pulled down yet, except for a couple of apartment buildings by the shore. The problem is Mitsui Matsushima. They still own all the good bits. We’ve been trying to get the prefectural government to persuade them to cooperate, but we never get a clear answer, just keep getting rebuffed.” She sighed.
“And the restaurant, well, I’m lucky if I do five or six bentos for the construction workers. It’s barely enough for the electricity, to be honest.” Her voice trailed off.
“Come next door, my husband runs a little business.” Over the lintel, a sign offered power-assisted bicycle rentals.
“We got the bikes from the prefecture. But we only rent out one or two a month.”
Clearly, Ikeshima’s bid to become the next Battleship Island is in its nascent stages and faces formidable challenges. Time may be on its side, though, if it’s prepared to play the long game, as Battleship Island’s ancient structures are destined to tumble into rubble, robbing the island of its intensity.
Around the docks where the coal was once stored and shipped, a lone man with a blowtorch was doing his best to dismantle the island’s legacy, one oil drum at a time, as drizzle turned to downpour.
Atop the island’s central plateau, hydrangeas were in full bloom by a vast network of apartment complexes laced with ditch-lined lanes so narrow I was in constant fear of the sickening grind of metal undercarriage on tarmac.
On first sight, I took it as given that the island’s combined elementary and junior high school, which looks like every other school in Japan, would have been closed, but no. While 57 students graduated junior high in March 2002, just three did so the following year. Now just five junior high students and seven elementary schoolers rattle around the corridors and classrooms of a school built for at least 1,500 kids.
In many countries of the West, the school buildings would have long been pulverized into tiny particles and mixed with fishmeal to make chickenfeed and the children shipped off to the mainland with a pat on the back and a warning not to talk to strangers. The two schools welcomed one new student apiece at their April 2010 entrance ceremonies, and this was true of seven other schools in Nagasaki Prefecture alone, one of which was reopened especially for the admission of the sole student. Indulgence and inertia, wonderful in their way, rule the roost.
Behind the school stand the earliest apartment blocks to be built on the island and the first to be vacated, eight-storey liftless behemoths with a sublime brooding magnificence.
I was swiftly and deeply smitten with their android fire hydrants.
A brand-new black and yellow minibus, no doubt a gift of the prefecture, buzzed to a halt at a bus stop. But there was no one to pick up, and no one to set down; there was no one about at all. And so the bus shuttled off on its way around the island, in luckless search of the pollen of a passenger.
Down at the shops, a bench crumpled in on itself as if it had been shot.
Above a tiny ex-grocer’s, whose signboard advertises an only-in-Nagasaki soy sauce, someone was staying on.
The three-digit number, Ikeshima 151, inspired in this phone-phobe a reverent awe for a world long gone. The whole island is beyond the reach of mobile signals.
Saturday nights would never be the same again when the ten-pin bowling alley hit town; to guess from its lettering and architecture (if you can call it that), it came as late as the mid-1980s.
Around the back of the shops, rust once again stopped me in amazement at the tricks it can pull.
Although the police station, with no drunk payday brawls left to club to quiet, has gone, much of the rest of the institutional infrastructure of the state remains, including the post office, the locked-up community hall, and the part-timers’ fire station.
Finally I made it to the source of all of Ikeshima’s strife and glory.
Although there was never a major fatal accident at the mine in its 42 years of life, there was plenty of pneumoconiosis. In March 2002, 77 former miners and their families sued Mitsui Matsushima for negligence, and amazingly, given how slowly Japan’s courts grind, they won just four years later, with compensation payouts ranging from some $30,000 to $300,000. Not much for years of suffering but more than most plaintiffs manage to squeeze from the stone of Japan’s judiciary.
The ferry steamed out of port and looking back, I saw Ikeshima capped with a crown of cloud all its own, a white pillow of cloud for a sleeping island, hanging lower than the dirt grey skies that spawned it.
“Goodbye King Coal, you venal tyrant,” I thought to myself, “and good riddance. It’s good you’re gone, gone at last from these lands at least, gone with your lives cut short by dust blast and black lung, gone with your weeping widows, gone with your fatherless children. And goodbye to you, too, Ikeshima: may your dreams of ruin come true, may you rust in peace.”