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Friday, April 11, 2014

Ōkunoshima: Rabbit Island

Rabbit island, otherwise known to the Japanese as Ōkunoshima, is, as far as tourist places a gas-gas-gas.

More on that in a moment.

Called Rabbit Island because of the plethora of cute, wild and unafraid bunny rabbits that live there, it is a small islet that is part of Takehara-shi (Takehara City) in Hiroshima-ken (Prefecture of Hiroshima).

These furry little buggers have been on the island since the mid-1920s... well, not these exact same ones, but relatives of those... back when the rabbits were being used by Japanese scientists to test the effectiveness of its chemical warfare program.

Okay... sort of. The original rabbits... they were all killed during the tests... what we have now are rabbits introduced to the island after the fact.

But the island was indeed the site of a very secret chemical munitions factory.

Ōkunoshima: Rabbit Island is in the foreground.
Until around 1904, three Japanese families lived on the island and farmed there. Then, with the advent of the Russian-Japan war of 1904-05, Japan built 10 forts on the small isle to defend it against possible invasion.

Even though Japan was one of the original signers of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use of chemical weapons, that same year the Imperial Japanese Army Institute of Science and Technology started up its own secret program to develop chemical weapons.

Don't hate Japan for being hypocritical... the US and other European countries were doing it, too. Probably. Although... Japan did build the Miyazaki Peace Tower in 1942 at the height of WWII, so Japan knows all about hypocrisy.

Also... if you know anything about Japan and the Geneva Convention and the ethical treatment of prisoners of war... it appears as though Japan really didn't care for Switzerland.

At this time, according to the Geneva pact signed, a country could still develop and store chemical weapons... they just couldn't use them... and yet... Japan took great pains to hide the construction of a chemical munitions plant on the island... even removing the island from its maps.

After being constructed between 1927-9, the facility all told produced six kilotons in total of mustard gas and tear gas... so nothing too nefarious, though I'm betting anyone hurt by mustard gas would beg to differ.

Still known as Ōkunoshima, the Japanese picked the isle for its isolation, security, and because it was far enough from Tokyo and other areas in case of disaster... which seems like over-kill because how could anything possibly go wrong with a dangerous chemical plant? Oh yeah... Fukushima.

Ruins of Okunoshima poison gas production facility. Photo from
Run by the Japanese military, everything was kept hush-hush... so much so that the residents and even potential employees weren't told what was going on there... like what they were making.

And yet... sarcasm... many people became afflicted with toxic-exposure related illnesses.

When World War II ended... I assume that it was the Japanese who burned documents relating to the plant... while the Allied Occupation Forces disposed of the gas either by dumping, burning, or burying it.

In fact... the Allied Occupation Forces told people to be silent about the project... which leads me to believe that they got their hands on some of the research...

As for the people who got ill working at the facility... don't worry... Japan took care of them... sarcasm... several decades later.

As of 2014... the past is almost forgotten... the island now has a hotel, a six-hole golf course and a small camping ground. Visitors are able to swim in the clean water surrounding the island, regardless of the tide. And of course all the rabbits... which were released on the island after Japan decided to turn the chemical munitions island into a park...

On the plus side... Japan does own up to its nasty little secret past here. In 1988, the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum was opened to "alert as many people as possible to the dreadful truths about poison gas."

It's only a small two-room building... but it contains artifacts donated by families of workers who became ill on the island.

Should you wish to visit the island to have bunnies crawl over you to steal whatever veggies you happened to bring: take the Sanyō Shinkansen train to Mihara-eki train station and then take the local Kure Line train to Tadanoumi-eki, from there walk to the terminal and catch a ferry for a 12-minute ride out to Rabbit Island.

English translations are provided on the island - sort of... but really... you are just going to the place to be swamped by bunnies. No translation required.
Andrew Joseph

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