71 years have passed since the last World War—since Hiroshima was bombed. The final vestiges of the conflict have faded from the landscape, and “hibakusha” (victims of the bombing) are disappearing day by day. There are few people left to tell the story of the conflict’s bitter aftermath. I began this project to capture, on film, the memory of the dread the city felt in the war’s wake. While researching Hiroshima as well as the history of the war, I stumbled upon Okunoshima.
Okunoshima is a small island about 4 kilometers wide. It earned its reputation as “Rabbit Island” for the immense rabbit population which thrived in the warm climate of the straits after they were released into the wild after the war. A national vacation village was also constructed so that tourists from both home and abroad could enjoy the island as a resort destination.
Its quaint exterior belies a deadly truth: Okunoshima is also known as “Poison Gas Island” for the role it played in producing poisonous gasses after the first World War, a legacy left behind in the empty husks of the factories peppering the island. Here, chemical weaponry was manufactured from the second Sino-Japanese War all the way through World War II. The laborers who worked here, some 6,700 people in total, suffered the effects of their work long after the war was over, much like the people who experienced the atomic bomb first-hand. Many still struggle with guilt for their complicity in the deaths of countless others.
My school curriculum that had harped on peace education to the point of tedium had never taught me about the dark underbelly of the island’s history. Growing up in Hiroshima showed me only a landscape damaged by conflict, a place where we always kept the ambiguous word “peace” close to our hearts even while living in a city synonymous with one of history’s most terrible acts of war. Meanwhile, in contrast, this tiny island lay nearby, quietly harboring its own history of wrongdoing.
The existence of the island was kept strictly confidential, and maps produced for public use in 1938 showed only a void where Okunoshima should have been. Many people came from the other side of the island to work at the factory, but they were sworn not to tell anyone of their work. People who caught the eye of the island locals were accused of being spies, and the train to Kure—which ran along the coast—would shutter its windows when crossing in sight of the island.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government mostly denies that it ever used poisonous gas on foreign soil; in fact, they’ve refused to support the island in any way, choosing instead to draw a curtain over their negative actions in this regard. Once they finally succumb to the elements, the relics of war that remain here now will be lost to the ages. There are 2,000 people alive today who were once laborers on the island, and at this point, many of them who worked directly with poison gas are over 90 years old. We’re running out of time to collect their first-hand accounts; however, we owe it to our future generations to tell their stories.
It’s important to understand the extent of the damage the island faced—and yet to use it as yet another appeal for peace would only ring as a hollow platitude. Rather, I think, what could serve as a better narrator of the horrors of war than a key player in its poisonous legacy: the factories where killing gas was produced.
As a photographer who hails from Hiroshima, I can only hope that my photos can serve to pass on the truth. Hopefully, my photographs can act as a small impetus to their revelation.
Fujii is currently working on a handmade book of this work—it will be available through Tokyo’s Reminders Photography Stronghold this fall. You can see more of Yoshikatsu’s work on his personal website.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like these previous features: Red String, Fujii’s previous project; The Restoration Will, Mayumi Suzuki’s remarkable tribute to her parents, lost in the 2011 tsunami; and In Praise of Shadows, a short but affecting meditation on the unique aesthetics of Japan.