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Japan Trip: Opposing Views

The Two Stories of Gunkanjima

June 14, 2017

During our stay in Nagasaki we took a ferry to visit an island that has been designated as a World Heritage UNESCO site, called Gunkanjima. It lies just off the coast of Nagasaki and looks like a stone fortress. This fortress held a coal mine that also acted as a city because the people who worked there also lived there. Gunkanjima became so densely populated that big 10-story structures were built to house the people. There were schools, office buildings and even restaurants on Gunkanjima. It sounded pretty cool. To reach this island, we took a boat ride and when we reached the island we were then given a tour of a couple locations that they had open to the public. The tour and all the information was given in Japanese, so we were not able to understand much, but all the information seemed to be given in a joking and friendly manner.

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There was even a cartoon shown where Gunkanjima was portrayed with a face and it started to cry when the the coal ran out, the mine was shut down, and everyone left the island. It remained sad for a bit, but then people started to come back and this made the cartoon Gunkanjima very happy. We later learned that Gunkanjima was reopened in 2007 and was even named a World Heritage site. So, if I had to give you an opinion of what I thought of that island based strictly off that tour, I would say that it is a cool piece of history that involves undersea coal mining in Japan.

But, the following day we went to a tiny museum called the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum and it told a very different story about Gunkanjima. We had a little prior knowledge from our professors on the trip, Dr. Denton-Borhaug and Dr. Jasper, that Gunkanjima was a place where Koreans laborers were forced to work, but this museum really drove home the harsh conditions these people had to work under.  Chinese and Korean laborers were forced to work on this island under slave-like conditions. Korean laborers were treated especially harshly. For instance, in the sleeping quarters the Koreans were given the lowest floors of buildings so that when the tide came in, the floors they were to sleep on got wet and after a long day of forced labor the Koreans would have to come back to wet, damp floors that were never really dry. We also found out at this museum, that working conditions on Gunkanjima were so bad that some laborers considered cutting off a limb, so they would be able to leave the island. These workers were willing to physically handicap themselves for life just to escape this awful place. Mortality rates were extremely high for Korean workers, and the abuse they suffered  is amazing in the way that people were able to survive it. Going to the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum was very eye-opening and drove home the point of seeing both sides of a story before forming an opinion.

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It’s always good to hear both sides of the story before forming an opinion on an event, place, or person. Gunkanjima was a good example, for me, of how different events of history are perceived and remembered. It really reiterated that I can’t take everything I read or hear at face value and should do more research on a topic before I form an opinion.

A lot of my trip to Japan brought this idea to the forefront, especially when hearing about the atomic bombings because most of what I learned throughout school talked about the bombing being a necessary evil and in Japan I was exposed to the opposite view. As a history major I was glad to have this point rehashed on my trip abroad and will continue to look at both sides of a topic before forming my own opinion.