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Gunkanjima: Historians Call Japan's Battleship Island An 'Astonishing Time Capsule' 




British industrial historians Sir Neil Cossons (photo on the right) and Barry Gamble (on the left) have been involved for more than a decade with the vetting of Japan's application with the UNESCO to have Battleship Island (Gunkanjima) near the city of Nagasaki and 22 other sites recognized as World Heritage Site.



On August 30 they sat down with JAPAN Forward editor in chief Yasuo Naito and other members of the Sankei Shinbun staff to discuss the recent inscription of 23 sites associated with Japan’s industrial revolution in the Meiji era. (Sir Neil Cossons is also a member of the Japan Government Advisory Committee on Industrial Heritage.)


Throughout the interview Cossons and Gamble stressed the deep connection between the British industrial revolution, which was the first in the world, and the Japanese industrial revolution in the Meiji era, which was the first in Asia.


Although Japan imported industrial technology from a number of European countries, the role of Britain was particularly large in the iron and steel, coal mining, and shipbuilding sectors that form the unifying theme of the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” recognized by UNESCO. So strong was the British connection that Cossons felt he was seeing in Japan elements of the British industrial heritage that had disappeared in Britain itself.




In this context both Cossons and Gamble noted that industrial history had long been neglected despite the immense impact of industrialization on the world and how people live. Britain had ignored its own industrial history through the 1950s and 1960s, and UNESCO had only started recognizing industrial sites 20 years ago.


Both men noted that, while Japan has a number of remarkably well preserved sites from the Meiji era, Japanese learn little about the Meiji Restoration as an industrial revolution. The historians expressed the hope that the UNESCO inscription would lead to greater education about and awareness of this aspect of the Meiji era.


Today, when there are numerous industrialized countries and industrializing countries—such as China, India, and Brazil—it is easy to overlook how unusual the Meiji industrial revolution was. It made Japan not only the one industrialized country geographically outside of Europe but also the one industrialized country outside of the European cultural sphere that includes the United States and Canada.



Moreover, Japanese progress was rapid with Japan accomplishing in a half century what had taken more than a century in Britain. In the very well received Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 (May-October) in London, Japan presented itself not just as a producer of high quality craft goods but also as a producer of global standard industrial goods.



Both men stressed that the 23 sites eventually selected out of more than 400 visited were those with “outstanding universal value” and those that had passed a very rigorous vetting process and were “the best of the best.”  Moreover, the Japanese site (23 physical sites in eight prefectures primarily in western Japan under a single World Heritage Site designation) had been “inscribed with no conditions” and had achieved the “highest recommendation possible” with “no debate” concerning the ultimate approval.


In describing the selection process, both Gamble and Cossons stressed that political issues played no role. Selection was solely on the basis of documentation that was subjected to “unbelievable scrutiny” in the context of selecting sites related to the industrial revolution in Japan and the technology transfer that made it possible.


As Cossons noted, if there are “anxieties” about the political appropriateness of the selections these “anxieties ought to be evidence-based and we have not seen any of the evidence.” He further noted that if “anxieties” are raised they must be supported by documentation comparable to that which led to recognition, and “you have a right to ask for it.”


Cossons was very explicit that any questions raised with respect to events after 1910 would in no way diminish the importance of the “Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution” as it is styled on the UNESCO web site. Although not explicitly stated, this was clearly a reference to Korean objections based on the alleged use of forced labor at some sites. Even if factual, this charge in no way diminishes the importance of these sites because it involves something that came decades after the Meiji industrial revolution.


Of the 23 physical sites making up the single composite that was inscribed, the so called Battleship Island (Gunkanjima) near the city of Nagasaki clearly had made the greatest impression on both men, with Cossons describing it as “absolutely astonishing” and a “time capsule” showing daily life some decades ago. He noted that in some apartments in the housing blocks on the islands there are household goods left behind and even house plants that are still growing decades after the island was abandoned.




In the view of both experts, no attempt to restore Battleship Island should be made.  First, to do so would “cost you a fortune.” Second, restoration would mean “there would be no magic left.”


In Britain, some historical sites, especially medieval monasteries, have been so carefully restored that they are “sanitized” and lifeless. Battleship Island should be made safe for visitors and the seawall repaired to slow deterioration, but otherwise it should left as is. Moreover, since the above-ground facilities—including the first large concrete apartment building constructed in Japan—were constructed after the 1910 cutoff for inscription, Japan has no responsibility to UNESCO for this aspect of the island.



In their final remarks Gamble and Cossons noted that Japan has been scrupulous in providing documentation and meeting the UNESCO requirement for “authenticity.”  Those who would raise questions should be held to the same standards.


“Stick with the facts. Don't make conclusions where you can't make conclusions. If there is more than one narrative and there is solid evidence for that narrative, it should be presented, and presenting it will earn you respect,” Cossons said.



He also expressed hope that an exhibition in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and its industrial revolution can be held at the Science Museum of London in 2018.



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