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The Bunnies and Bombs of Okunoshima Island (Hiroshima Pref.)

広島県竹原市忠海・大久野島

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Japan is well-known the world over for being a land of complete randomness. Like English words thrown together on a Japanese tee-shirt that collectively make no sense whatsoever, the brain is tested for sanity on a daily basis. As a result, the longer I live in this country, the more I find myself freakishly longing, in quite a masochistic sense, for places and experiences that continue to challenge my mental faculty. When I heard that I was near the "strange and mysterious" island of Okunoshima, known in war buff circles for its grim history, I just had to check it out.

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Pulling out of Tadanoumi Port (Takehara City), bound for Okunoshima Island

The City of Takehara promotes Okunoshima as a pleasant vacation spot where you can frolic with Mother Nature and play in the sun. For this purpose, Okunoshima does not disappoint. There's a small hot springs resort here complete with hotel, tennis courts, a nature discovery center, golden sandy beaches and a camping facility. Naturally, this is what most of the locals head for when they get off the 15-minute ferry from Tadanoumi Port.

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Okunoshima Kyukamura Resort Hotel

And I'm supposed to just accept it as that- without asking the most obvious, impossible-to-ignore question racking the brain:

Dude! What's with all the rabbits? And why is Okunoshima also called "Usaginoshima?" (Rabbit Island)

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These little guys are EVERYWHERE!

Depending on who you ask in Takehara, there are apparently two answers to this question. The tourist agents and children will tell you that several decades ago, a few elementary school kids, who just happened to be carrying rabbits on the ferry with them, went to Okunoshima on a school trip and released (or abandoned) them there. Over the years, the rabbits "were fruitful and multiplied," having no natural predators to keep their numbers in check.

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But ask a taxi driver or a teacher in the Tadanoumi area and you'll get a completely different (and more logical) answer:

Back during WWII, the Imperial Army ordered the island of Okunoshima to be the base for Japan's primary poison gas factory. The island was so secret, that it was erased from all official maps. The thousands of workers employed there were forbidden to tell even their families about their occupation. According to local testimony, during the war, whenever the train approached Tadanoumi Station, the blinds had to be pulled down so that passengers couldn't see Okunoshima Island from the train windows. (After all, if you can't see it, it's not there, right? Just like nuclear radiation). Sadly, much of the manufactured poison gas was used and disposed of in China, but thousands of the Japanese workers at the factory also got horribly ill with lung infections, chronic asthma, painful pus-filled blisters and rashes from making the chemical weapons. Their thin, poorly-fitting rubber suits and masks proved inadequate for the job.

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Remnants of a poison gas storage unit. The walls were charred black by flame-throwers used by Allied Forces to neutralize the poison gas during the decontamination process.

Since war prisoners were in short supply (and it wasn't appropriate to use Japanese citizens for testing), rabbits were allegedly used in experiments to test the effects of the poison gas. But when Allied Forces seized Okunoshima in 1945, the rabbits either escaped or were set free, "were fruitful and multiplied." Now there are hundreds if not thousands of them, and legions more fluffy bunnies being born on Okunoshima every day.

And they are pretty dang cute! I'd say they're way too cute for even an adult to abandon on some deserted island smack in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, let alone an elementary school kid.

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With this sad wartime story hanging over my head like a cloud of, um, poison gas, I gave up trying to have a mentally soothing, pristine happy time here in Okushima and just took the trip for what it was: part memorial, part beach zen, part hiking trip.

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If you can resist the urge to board the free shuttle bus that goes from the dock to the resort, turn right instead after you step off the ferry and you'll be rewarded with a peaceful hike with impressive views of neighboring islands glinting in crystalline azure seawater. The island is covered with lush vegetation: pine and camellia trees, bamboo grass, azalea bushes, even cherry trees that splash Okunoshima with cheerful colors come springtime. Bulbuls and thrushes trill and chirp in the green, filling the air with bright song.

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The paved trail hugs the coast in places and winds through dense forests in others, opening up on occasion to reveal Meiji-era brick military strongholds, cannon magazines and the infamous poison gas storage units. Okunoshima was originally a fortress set up to protect Japan before the start of the Russio-Japanese War (1902~).

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Seeing all the cute, healthy (and well-fed) bunnies hopping around the desolate ruins of war, your mind constantly shifts from relaxed and serene to heavy and remorseful and back again. I found it all to be a beautifully sobering experience.

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For 700 yen, you can rent a bicycle to cruise the nicely-paved trails around the island's circumference. But I found I didn't need one. With just my two feet, I completed the circle in just under 2 hours. Instead, I put that money to better use feeding myself and the cute little bunnies. An ice-cold Campbell grape soft cream for me and 100 yen worth of food pellets for the rabbits. They went over well.

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Campbell Grape Soft Cream! Mmmmm! (a specialty of Takehara City)

For 200 yen, you can learn more about Okunoshima's wartime past at the Poison Gas Museum. It might be only a room-and-a-half's worth collection of books, artifacts, testimonials and poison gas paraphernalia, but the impact is pretty severe. Photography is forbidden inside the museum, otherwise I'd post the disturbing pictures of the "protective" gear, blister-covered victims and imperial memorabilia. Part of me is very glad that I get to spare you the misery. But the single-minded mission of the museum is crystal clear: to educate Japan and the world of the horrors and inhumanity surrounding war and chemical weapon use- a lesson we still need to hear even today.

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Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum

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Access to Okunoshima: Take the Kure Line train from Mihara or Takehara to Tadanoumi Station. Exit the station and there should be a convenience store on your left. Turn right instead and walk about 8 minutes down the highway to the bridge. Turn right again and follow the road over the railroad tracks to Tadanoumi Port. Ferries depart for Okunoshima every 30 minutes. 300 yen o/w for adults, 150 yen o/w for children.

Posted by GenkiLee 06:59 Archived in Japan Tagged sea japan hiroshima ww2 rabbits inland tadanoumi okunoshima seto

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Comments

Wow, this is an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing.
I've been to the Nagasaki Atom Bomb and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museums, and appreciate Japan's efforts in educating future generations about NBC warfare but the presence of the rabbits is even more haunting somehow.

by KellieBarnes

Thank you for your comment, Kellie! :-) Yes, places like this really bring it all into perspective, don't they? How did you enjoy Nagasaki? That place is on my Japan Bucket List for sure.

by GenkiLee

I really enjoyed Nagasaki, it's a great city! I was also able to spend much more time exploring their museum and the surrounding area, so that was important to me. Would definitely love to see more of the city - I thought it had a totally different vibe to the Kansai area (where I've spent a lot of time).

by KellieBarnes

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