Ōkunoshima – I learned of the name from a girl with arthritis. When it rained, she became bedridden with severe joint pain; her mind taken over by thoughts of self-harm. She took me by surprise when she told me, “Before I die, I have to go to Ōkunoshima,” I couldn’t help asking her what there was.
“Rabbits,” she answered.
It was an island full of rabbits.
Years later, I came across that island again in the artist Yoshikatsu Fujii’s handcrafted book. This time, I learned that 800 rabbits inhabited this small island in Hiroshima, hence the moniker “Rabbit Island” known to tourists. According to the Hiroshima-born artist, the island’s charm masked a deadly secret: a century ago, the island was home to a chemical weapons facility. Rabbit Island was a gas manufacturing plant in disguise.
Yoshikatsu Fujii uses photography as a medium to explore the ruins of the facility. Some places became nests to rabbits, others were dotted by unknown tools or sandy soil. Encoding, and further juxtaposing images of the past and the present, Yoshikatsu Fujii hopes to bring to light a site that has, since its initiation, long been removed from the map, hidden by the government. From 1933 to 1947, and possibly to this day still, Ōkunoshima has been symbolised by a void. Turning inward, the artist problematises his native experience of the postwar landscape: one which harps on peace yet refuses to look its past in the eye. As such, Yoshikatsu Fujii’s reconstruction of Ōkunoshima is rooted – beyond the pictorial plane of the map – in the collective consciousness.
“In my first exam on the island, I came 48th – the last in my class. I worked very hard and, three years later, I graduated in the 12th place,” recalled an old man named Yasuma Fujimoto. “I still remember the chemical equations we had to memorise in class – but they were equations of murder.” Along with photographs, Yoshikatsu Fujii collected the first-hand accounts of three survivors, who worked in the chemical plant as apprentices or labourers during the war. They were fifteen years old, their youth immersed in yellowed, sulfuric air. Remembrance of things past is never remembrance of things as they were: on the contrary, it is bright, full of promises, and bears no connection to the suffering to come.
How Poison Gas Island came around as Rabbit Island is subject to much speculation: some cite animal testing; others suggest that the immense rabbit population is the offspring of the five rabbits first introduced to the island after the war. Fact remains that the once barren land has become an oasis to the animals, whilst media coverage and tourism ensure that the rabbits continue to thrive along the coastline.
As I finished Yoshikatsu Fujii’s book, I thought of the short-haired girl with arthritis. She longed to visit Ōkunoshima – for its rabbits, or for its lethal gas? I never asked her. In fact, we have not spoken since. But I still remember the look on her face then. It was one of redemption between Ōkunoshima’s antipodes.