Ruin of a Japanese WWII Shipyard

Mike GristHaikyo, Military Installations, Mines / Factories, Nagasaki, Prisons 30 Comments

The Kawaminami shipyard was opened in 1936 and went bankrupt in 1955. It had four huge bays and two large factory buildings. Through the war years it served as both a munitions factory, a drydock for construction of cargo ships, escort ships, and kaitens, and possibly also as a Prisoner of War (POW) slave labor camp. By some accounts up to 4000 POWs were forced to work here during wartime.

The main factory hall.

History on the place has been hard to come by definitively. According to official POW internment records, it never had POWs. According to other sites it did. It may be a simple mix-up of names, as there was another infamous POW camp in Nagasaki harbor that also built ships, and was also called Kawaminami. Either way, it was far from uncommon for POWs to be made into slave labor.

The major company Mitsubishi became famous for its ‘hellships’, transports loaded down with POWs sent to factories all over Japan and Manchuria, and for the factories themselves, which often had no heating even in the depths of winter.

The front.

I discovered that Osarizawa mine, the haikyo I went to in the Tohoku area, which had the brilliant blue pools and is still being operated by Mitsubishi to this day, was a site of slave POW labor. 503 American POWs worked there, claiming the mining techniques and equipment were as primitive as those of centuries earlier. Here’s an extract from a site titled ‘Mitsubishi: Empire of Exploitation’ about conditions in Osarizawa-

“The mine was cold and damp and had icicles hanging from the ceiling”, Kenneth Calvit recalled. The prisoners had to walk over two miles up a steep mountain road to get to the mine. “On one stretch of the road there was a cut in the mountain where the wind and snow were blinding, so we used a rope and would go hand by hand to keep from getting lost”, Calvit said. During the few months when snow wasn’t on the ground, the POWs would try to catch grasshoppers along the way, in a desperate search for protein to add to their watery soup. They had no mid-day meal from the company. Calvit also remembered the time ammonia leaked from pipes in the company’s refrigeration plant into the vat of soup — which was served to the POWs anyway.

But what the prisoners remembered most was the terrible cold, how they were only allowed two hours of heat per day, and how, when they tried to bring a few scrap timbers from the mine to put in the little barracks stove, the company guards would take it from them. “At times I thought I was going to freeze to death”, David Summons said.

Ivy creeps up the crumbled concrete.

The stories of this time are fascinating and horrifying. POWs who were too terrified to speak, who died by their scores of pneumonia, injuries, disease. Also there are the stories of courage, the sabotage done to the factories by men unwilling to help the enemy cause, the men who took control of their labor camps the moment they heard the war was over and marched their once-overlords to the city to be arrested by occupying forces.

View into the main factory.

I’ve spent hours perusing documents, maps, and photographs from that time now, and feel I`ve only scraped the surface. In history class in the UK I only learned about the war in the European theater, I knew nothing of it in the Pacific. Every time I come across some of that history directly, whether it`s incidentally while holiday-making on Saipan or as part of my haikyo `explorations`, it hits me hard that there was this whole side to a war that I knew nothing about. The misery was not limited to Europe. It happened all over this country also, and all around its orbit (Manchuria [occupied China], Saipan, Guam, etc..)

Can you imagine being a world war 2 POW in a Japanese labor camp? It must have been one of the most alien environments imaginable. In their first week Allied soldiers were forced to learn Japanese numbers so they could know when they were being called, but beyond that nothing said around them would have made any sense.

They survived on a diet of mostly rice, in portions that decreased as the war progressed more and more poorly. The discipline they were exposed to was often iron-clad and brutal, with executions commonplace, leaving prisoners in a perpetual state of shock and humiliation. They spent their days alongside drafted Japanese and Korean workers building ships for the enemy.

Main Factory.

Prisoners in camp Fukuoka #2B, situated just outside of Nagasaki, clearly saw the mushroom cloud and blast of the atomic bomb dropped on that city.

I found one document that was a list of all the POWs killed in Fukuoka #2B. A large number died from penumonia, with others dying from colitis, and a few from crushing, burning, drowning while at work.

I found a list of POW camp orders, direct from the Camp Commander through the Japanese interpreter. The Japangrish is slightly comic, but the reality is stark. They were prisoners, and they had to do what they were told.

Monday July 5, 1943
In accident at dockyard, the man did not help in boat accident. Two Dutch officers ran away. They are unfaithful and we are disappointed in them.
You must salute from the heart.
Do not say Nip or Jap. It is just as bad as saying Yank.
No reading after 9 P.M..

Flanked by vegetation.

Sept. 4 [1943]
The Sgt. Major is the N.C.O. of the week. There will be no mistakes. Men will stop sleeping in the latrine.
All men are responsible for all men.
Watch and check each other.
Drillers are very good, the under ship are very lazy. POW No. 341 is no good at picking up iron.

Oct. 8. [1943]
The Sgt. Major really expects you not to happen. You may bathe when the water is fired.
You have a new galley hancho (mess sergeant) make him good. Salute from the heart.
Use water sparingly.
Try not to have fire.

Striking graffiti.

Dec. 31 [1943]
Unnecessary things are going on at the docks – there will be heavy, heavy punishment. Officers and room-chiefs are responsible.
All men receive food as well as lunch – why should 6 or 7 be hungry. They are smuggling time from watchmen to bake food. Therefore they are lazy.
All buying and selling is forbidden.
New Year tomorrow so nothing filthy – live happily in the camp.
The galley hancho (mess sergeant) feels very bad because people try to improve upon his cooking.
Our camp is the talk of the town of Nagasaki on the food-proposition. Don’t let it happen from any view point. The supply sergeant says keep your brooms dry.

Graffiti and columns.

Jan. 19 [1944]
Camp authorities want everybody to be happy.
To keep happy very much responsibility of room chiefs at dockyard and camp from any view point. Salute from the heart.
Gargle twice daily.
Navy officers at dockyard say many things have been going on recently. You must swear not to do it again.

More like this on this very thorough POW site.

I came to the shipyard without knowing much about it, and despite the information above I still don’t know much about it directly, only by inference. I just know it was huge, and abandoned 55 years ago. It has simply been left as it was, though with all the machinery stripped out. It’s falling to pieces and obscured by scrubby trees.

I didn’t have long to explore, as I had to get back for the last train, then onto a plane back to Tokyo, but there wasn’t much to investigate. With ruins of this age, you’re looking at bones. There’s no detritus left, none of the stuff of everyday life. All that’s left are the things that don’t rot and can’t be stolen- a huge factory structure and 6 giant dry-dock bays where ships were cast and built.

Trees grow up where ships were once cast.

One of the 4 drydocks.

Twisty trees obscure dry-dock bays.

End of the drydock railings.

Drydock bays reflecting pool.

You can find more ruins explorations in the galleries:

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Comments 30

  1. Finally a new haikyo!
    Interesting to read about the POWs, although I didn’t read the whole thing, was a bit long I thought. Do you think that source is reliable?

    Have to ask though, why post the same picture 3 or 4 times, even at different exposures and angles? Seems unnecessary.

    Is this the last of the Kyushu haikyo?

  2. I like the view of the lower tier shot, and would have only used that view in the post, as the Can said, a lot of the images were repeated which waters down their impact to me as a viewer.

    Looks like a very interesting haikyo though, with gutted interiors and outside locations being on water is an unusual find.

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    Can- The source about this place in particular- who knows. Like I say in the post, using POWs in factories was a pretty commonplace practise, and that is widely documented. Most interesting to me was hearing that Osarizawa mine used POWs. I think that source is probably authentic. Can`t think of any other reason they`d have heard of that mine.

    Many photos, no especial reason, just put them in.

    Jason- Waters down images, fair enough, though in this case I started with many many more, and already whittled it down a lot. As I`m sure you know, gets hard to whittle beyond a certain point.

  4. Nice find Mike – how did you locate this one? Pictures are good, but I have to agree that there were too many. I started scrolling just to get to the end. I know exactly how you feel though – all the effort to take shots and then only posting a few of the absolute best ones. It’s a hard lesson for me to learn as well :/

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    Gak- Was actually taking a page out of Danny Choo’s style guide. On many of his posts he includes multiple versions of essentially the same shot. Do you think he includes too many shots also?.

  6. After reading your comment I visited Danny Choo’s site for the first time in a long time to see if he posted multiple versions of the same shot, and it seems he does that mostly when photographing those horrid figurines (though he has become a pretty good product photographer I see). Going through his Japan photo posts I did see some similar shots. In general I would say he posts way, way too many shots. It just gets overwhelming and like Gak, I was just scrolling to try and find an end.

    I think a lot depends on the style of the post as well. If there is a paragraph of text, or at least several sentences, between each photo, that breaks things up and is to me a digestible photo story, like Chris does at ~icjw.

    Then it is if you believe in being a RUTHLESS editor of your work or not. Do you show your shots to someone else before posting them? I usually run shots by Aya to get a second opinion, though of course my own matters most since I look at hundreds of photos a week of other photographer’s work.

    I believe absolutely in being a RUTHLESS editor and need to be even more ruthless with my own slideshows on my business site. I read a blog post recently by Scott Kelby I believe, or someone of similar giant stature in the photography world and he wrote how he was checking a person’s online portfolio and the first 15 images or so were great and left him with a very good impression of the photographer. However, there were like 30 more shots and by the end they last were not near the quality or impact as the first and his opinion changed. I took that to heart and immediately deleted dozens of shots from my site, and as I said need to be even more ruthless and delete a couple dozen more probably.

    So it just depends on your personal posting and photography philosophies and what impact you are looking to make on your readers, visitors, or if you are a pro shooter, your potential clients.

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    Florian- Ack, jealous! Wanted to check out Gunkanjima when I went to Kyushu, but was unfortunately closed for the winter. Look forward to your shots.

    Jason- Yeah, Danny Choo uses a lot of photos. The feeling that I get when I scroll through them is often mixed. Partly I`m thinking- hmmm, I saw this shot several times already, and partly- well, it is a good shot, nice to see a very slight variation on it. So that`s what I was aiming at with this. Especially for a location like this one, which has no minutiae to explore and photograph in detail, just a few money shots to make the most of.

    In the next top ten haikyo thing I do, whenever the shipyard gets included, of course it`ll just be the best two or three photos. Those top ten things are the main showcases for me now, drawing the most views.

  8. Hey Mike,

    Yea, Jason pretty much said it all, but I feel the same about Danny Choo’s site. For me, there are far too many pictures, but I have a feeling he imports them from his Flickr account, so it might be largely automated for him. Also, his target audience are probably not photo-fanatics. I would guess many of them enjoy seeing every angle on figurines and the regulars who visit there probably love to view as many pictures as possible. i-cjw is a guy who gets the story/photo balance exactly right, imo. But I’m still learning a lot about these sort of things myself!

  9. Hei!

    I have to say that I like that you have more photos especially on this post and on the one about the capsule hotel. I always want to see more, I want to see the whole package and some details (and usually your haikyo stories are like that). I think few pictures work only if there’s a video to tie them together. My opinion is influenced by the need to see the whole picture, I would be most happy if I could see the floor plan and structural plan of every interesting building 😀

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    Gak- No doubt, cjw`s posts are very impactful.

    Unelma- Hey hey, thanks! Good to have some support on this topic. I`d like to put up floor plans and the like too, if I had them 🙂

  11. Hi Mike,

    since you put the photos at the end of the text it doesn’t matter to me how many you put up – people who don’t like them can just skip them and scroll right to the comments. Maybe you can put the pictures without captions at the end, so those people won’t miss essential information.
    As for me: I like photos, so the more the better!

  12. Pingback: Best Of Japan Episode 02 « Hyper Japan

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  14. It is good that the shipyard is still there even though 5 decades have past. Maybe there are prisoners-of-war that were forced to work in there because the place is huge and it would able to support many people. Nice photos.

  15. some say if you bribe a fisherman they take you out to gunkanjima. they will leave you there over night or for 1 or 2 days. i know of a few people that have done it but its risky and there a hefty fine if caught.

  16. After the war the U.K. quickly worked to regain control of its Colonial empire territories, and also worked to ensure that the Dutch and French could regain control of their colonial empires

    Due to British manpower shortages in the combat against the local resistance fighters who sought national independence, JSP were often pressed into combat service alongside British occupation troops

    Being aware of the sensitivity and hypocrisy of using Japanese troops for the purpose of by force restoring the European colonial Empires against the wishes of the people, the Americans and British worked successfully to conceal the extent of Japanese involvement in this post-war activity

    The JSP were until at least 1947 used for enforced labor purposes

    The JSP term was invented by the British so that they would not have to comply with the requirements of the Geneva Convention vis-à-vis Prisoners of War

    You’re British …..

    1. Post

      You’re clearly upset about something I’ve written here- but instead of saying what it is you just go off on a tangent. I’m not interested in that. What’s the problem with this article?

  17. Just thought someone might like to read my comment, the photos are a bit confusing would be good to get a map of where tese photos were taken well my Father was at camp Fukuoka 2b Nagasaki from October 42- 45 he witnessed the bomb drop and the camp was just up from the dockyards according to stories they had to pass through a tunnel everyday to work in the docks, Dad was a riveter and they did build and repair (badly) ships and it was Kawaminami Brothers Company.

    Here is clip I made

    so rumours of POW’s working in shipyards is very true and anywhere else!

  18. I especially liked your post since reading the book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. She goes into depth about the POW camps in Japan as she follows a former American POW. It’s an unbelievable but thoroughly documented account based on the life of Louis Zamperini who grew up in Torrance California.

  19. Hello
    I lived in Japan with my husband from 1990 to 1998. In 1995 (50 years later), NHK put on a TV show dedicated to people who had lost loved ones during WWIi. I was able to go on this show to search for my father’s long lost friend.

    My father was a POW in Fukuoka and worked at the Kawiminami shipyards! He was orinally a Dutch sailor in Indonesia. He befriended a Japanese civilian who worked as a guard. Secretly my father taught hi, English and in return he sometimes received a newspaper or a bit of food. If either of them were caught, they would have been severely punished. After the war finished they lost contact.

    When I appeared on this NHK TV show, I spoke to the nation and asked if there was anyone out there under the name of Imada Masayuki. Luckily, the brother of Masayuki contacted NHK. But unfortunately, Masayuki died the previous year.

    NHK invited my father and mother to Japan to make a documentary. The TV channel filmed him in various places such as his POW (which is now a school) and we met the family of Masayuki. We have photos and a map of the POW camp but never was able to find the Mitsubishi shipyards where my father worked, carrying hevy steel.

    I still have the documentary but in the form of a VHS tape. It’s very interesting but of course it’s in Japanese. My father passed away in 1998. He wrote many stories of his time as a POW.

    Thank you for finding the Mitsubishi Dockyards. I wish my father was still alive to see these photos.

    Best regards

    Jacqueline Boell

    1. Jacqueline that is not the docks these pics are from another complex I checked out the location of this site and it is quite far from the Docks that your Dad worked in along with mine..they might have been owned by the ame family but they are not the dock site

  20. I do not know where this is but I do not think its the Kawaminami dry dock as the site is still used today on the Koyagi coast Koyagi WAS an island but it has been land filled and is still very much dry dock complex My Father worked at the dock 1943-45 Royal Navy HMS Exeter POW the POW camp was 1/4 mile from the dock and connected by a tunnel through the other side of the island if you google map koyagi nagasaki I have a panoramio photo of mr father on that dock site as well as a youtube clip

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