Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Persons Exiled in Nagashima Island

Some of the most beautiful places in the world have been used as prisons. Nagashima in the south-west Japan was one such island which became a sanatorium-prison in the early part of 20th century. Its prisoners had not committed any crime, they just had an infection called leprosy.

During my recent visit to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Nagashima and to learn about its history. This post is about that visit.


Nagashima (Naga = long and Shima = island) in Setouchi (Okayama) is a 9 km long beautiful island. After years of being seen as a place of fear, it is now changing its image.

The sea all around Nagashima is famous for its oyster farming. It is now connected to the mainland by a new bridge - the Oohashi bridge. It is surrounded by farming and fishing communities.

Nagashima As A Place of Exile

In 1930, the Japanese Government decided to create a leprosy sanatorium (Nagashima Aiseien) on Nagashima island.

A few years later, in 1934 the floods destroyed Sotojima Hoyo-in leprosarium near Osaka, killing 173 persons. Before the floods they had tried to shift to a safer place, but local residents did not want them. 416 survivors of the floods wanted to go to a new centre in Osaka but local persons did not want them, so finally they were relocated to the opposite side of Nagashima island to create a second leprosy sanatorium called Oku Komyoen.

Many people who lived on Nagashima changed their names so as to not cause problems for their families.

Doctors thought that by isolating the patients on an island they will stop the transmission of the disease. Over the next few years, the health authorities made very stringent laws limiting the lives and dignity of persons living on Nagashima island. For example, the women were sterilized and forced to abort.

Ancient treatment for leprosy was with Chaulmogra oil. The first modern treatment of leprosy with a Sulphone medicine (Dapsone) started after the Second World War. In the 1970s, more medicines for treating leprosy were discovered and slowly countries started treating leprosy like any other disease.

In 1996 the restrictive laws regarding leprosy sanatoriums in Japan were abolished and the leprosy affected persons of Nagashima were finally free. Over the years, thousands of persons affected with leprosy lived as prisoners in this island. Today in the two settlements there are still residents (about 400 persons), most of them very old.

Visiting Nagashima

A couple of weeks ago I visited Nagashima island during a meeting organised by Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation (SMHF) on the conservation of history of leprosy. During this visit we were accompanied by persons who had lived their lives in the sanatorium. This visit was an opportunity to see and understand their lives on Nagashima.

The image below shows Mr. Yamamoto, who had lived in Nagashima for around 70 years, ever since he was brought here as a young boy. He was our guide for this visit. Together with him is Ms. Kanae Hirano, our translator from Japanese to English.

I want to mention a few things which made a strong emotional impact on me during this visit.

Beautiful Panoramas

As we went up and down the hills of Nagashima, it was impossible not to be entranced by the beautiful panoramas of the islands and the sea.

The image below shows Tekake-Jima, also known as Benten island, which is connected to Nagashima during low tide and has the Nagashima shrine at its top.

Nagashima Museums

Nagashima has two museums - one is located in the old main office building at Aiseien. It is a beautiful building covered with green creepers.

The other museum is a new building in Oku Komyoen. The museums show artifacts, equipment, maps, medicines, etc. from the old days. For example, Nagashima had its own currency, so that if persons managed to escape they would not have any money to use on the mainland.

The next image shows part of a miniature sculpture of Nagashima with the isthmus of land connecting the old main office building to the area where the staff lived. In 1988, a canal was opened in this part of the island to facilitate the visits of the boats of the oyster farmers, who otherwise needed to go all around the island to reach their oyster platforms.

Charnel Houses

Both Aiseien and Komyoen have charnel houses for keeping the remains of people who died on Nagashima and whose remains were never claimed by their families. The image below shows the Charnel house of Aiseien.

Around the Charnel houses are different other memorials and shrines. The image below presents a shrine next to the Charnel house in Komyoen.

A crematorium was built in Nagashima, mid-way between Aiseien and Komyoen. This site also has a charnel house where remains of other residents are placed. It also includes a memorial to the children and fetuses of women living in Nagashima who were forced to abort (this policy was stopped only in 1954).

In 2002, in a meeting organised by IDEA and held in Seneca Falls in USA, I remember listening to very painful testimonies of some Japanese women who had been forced to abort in the leprosariums. Visiting this memorial brought back the memories of that visit and those testimonies.

Jail of Nagashima

Doctors managing Nagashima had complete powers over the residents including the power to punish and put them in jail. It was operational from 1939 to 1953. Below the hill, the warden of the jail had his paddy fields. Looking at the words scribbled by inmates of the jail on its walls was very moving.

Admissions ward

Persons arriving in Aiseien were taken to this building where all their belongings were checked and prohibited things were confiscated. Their children were taken away. Small children brought there with their parents were sent to schools both on Nagashima as well outside (where they were not well received).

They were given a disinfectant bath with cresol.

This part of the visit made me think of the Nazi concentration camps that I had read. Such places still continue to be used in countries, ostensibly for health-related reasons, for example with mentally ill persons and with immigrants.

Men and women living in Nagashima, if they got married, the men were sterilized but these operations were not always successful. Thus, if any women became pregnant, they were forced to abort. It was the Eugenic Protection Act enacted in 1948 that 'allowed' the parents with mental diseases and leprosy to have abortion legally. This act was amended in 1996, and it was only then that having or having had leprosy or mental diseases could be a condition to have an abortion.

Arrival Jetty

Aiseien had two separate jetties, one near the old main office building, which was reserved for doctors and other staff. The other jetty at the back, closer to the admissions ward was reserved for the patients. Most families accompanying persons affected with leprosy were not allowed to get down and had to say goodbye there.

Some persons arriving in Nagashima knew that they will never see their families again and they will not have an opportunity to leave the island. Many persons, especially the young ones, arriving in Nagashima did not know they were there for life. Many were persuaded to come because they were promised free medication and free lodging, and after cure, going home. They only knew that they were there for good when they got there, asked to change their name, and signed the autopsy agreement.

Looking at the old jetty with its broken down stones, and thinking of the desperation of those persons was one of the most touching moments during this visit.


Nagashima gave an impression of detached, clinical efficiency of dealing with people who had leprosy. It was a closed world with its own houses, schools, orchestra, sports groups, associations, jail and crematorium.

In 1998, some residents of Japanese leprosy sanatoriums went to the district courts to claim that segregating persons on the island was non-constitutional. Not all residents were happy with these law suits and people who fought for this had to face hostilities. The courts agreed with their plea and the residents were awarded a compensation and the Prime Minister of Japan apologised to them on behalf of the nation.

Leprosy had been in Japan for many centuries. First records of the disease are from 8th century. People affected with the disease had faced prejudices and stigma and were forced to live in leprosy villages. However, during all those centuries, the harsh measures adopted in 1930 such as complete isolation in an island, lack of contact with families, forced abortions, etc. had not happened. Why did they happen in the 20th century?

Visiting Nagashima was an opportunity to reflect on the use of medical systems to take away the dignity of people and even to torture them. It has happened in other countries and it still happens in many parts of the world.

Let me conclude with a question for the readers - what is the use of keeping alive the memory of places like Nagashima Aiseien and Komyoen? Can our young generations learn anything from such places?

In spite of the pain and suffering that are easy to imagine when one visits a place like Nagashima, my memories of this visit are also about the sheer beauty of Nagashima and the cheerfulness of the former residents and doctors, who welcomed us, showed us around and shared its history with us.


Friday, 19 May 2017

Do not forget Hiroshima Bomb

It would be difficult to find someone who has never heard of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima in Japan during the Second World War. Recently I was in Okayama and Hiroshima was not very far. Thus, I went for a visit.

The image above presents my favourite sculpture from the Peace Memorial Park of Hiroshima. I loved the tender expression on the woman's face, the golden sliver of the moon and the baby playing with a trumpet. In a poetic way, I think that it sums up very well why we need peace in the world and why we must never forget Hiroshima.

Bomb in Hiroshima

During the Second World War Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and USA retaliated by bombing Hiroshima and then, three days later, Nagasaki. Hiroshima Bengaku Hall was one important building, parts of which were left standing after the nuclear bomb. This hall could be seen next to Ota river in the old images of the bombing site (below) taken in 1945.

The uranium bomb called "Little Boy" had exploded around half a km above Hiroshima. In an area of 2 km around the explosion, all buildings were razed to ground, though houses in a 7 km radius were damaged. Only a few buildings in reinforced concrete survived. More than a hundred thousand persons died in Hiroshima, about 50% on the day of bombing and the remaining due to its after-effects.

Across the Ota river, today a plaque shows a picture of the Genbaku dome building before the bombing (image below).

Hiroshima Today

Today Hiro (broad) Shima (island) has a population of more than 1 million persons and is the biggest city in south Japan. It is a modern city full of sky-scrappers.

Ota river as it reaches near the sea, it divides into different branches (Enko, Motoyasu, Tenma, etc.), twisting, curving and encircling the land in a network of rivers and canals, criss-crossing the Hiroshima town. In 1949 it was decided to build a Memorial Park in this place, which lies in a small island created by Ota river and its branches. This post is about this A-Bomb Memorial Park, also called the Peace Memorial Park.

I was staying at Okayama and took an early morning bus to Hiroshima. The views of the verdant hills and mountains around the highway with occasional glimpses of the sea, was the notable feature of this one and half hour journey. The Ryobi bus dropped me at the corner of Heiwa Odori street, around 200 metres from the Memorial Park.

Genbaku Dome

The ruins of the Hiroshima Prefactural Industrial Promotion hall, called Genbaku hall, is the iconic symbol of Hiroshima. Its skeletal round dome at the top is called the A-Bomb dome. The black signs of  fire, the twisted metal staircase at its back and its blown out windows, doors and roofs are somber reminders of that 6 August morning of 72 years ago when the bomb had exploded.

The Genbaku dome is the only building of this part of old Hiroshima that has been left as it was that day.

Looking at the Genbaku dome affected me deeply, almost to the point of crying. It also made me think and despair about the number of countries that continue to make ever-bigger and ever-potent nuclear bombs. I thought of the words of Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari:
In a xenophobic dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, others will be forced to do the same, because nobody could afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.
Behind the dome, in the same complex, there is a central fountain with pillars arranged in a circle, that also bear the signs of the nuclear bomb.

Around the Genbaku dome, there are a number of small monuments. The first is the Red Bird monument, a literary monument to remember Miekuchi Suzuki of Hiroshima, who was a writer and the founder of a children's magazine called Akai Tori (the Red Bird). He is called the father of children's literature in Japan. The sculptures are by Katsuzo Entsuba, and were installed in 1964.

The Jizoson tombstone is a relic from the bombing,  placed in a building near the A-Bomb Dome. Jizoson is a Shinto deity that protects children. It was from a tombstone in a Jisenji temple. Part of the tombstone behind the statue remained smooth while other parts exposed to the thermal rays became rough.

The Student Memorial Tower is a pagoda-like monument in concrete with an angel in black stone at the base and sculptures of pigeons sitting on the top. It is located behind the Genbaku dome. On its sides there were colourful shide (streamers) of Orizuro (paper cranes), often placed near shrines, memorials and tombstones in Japan. At its back there were black stone panels with scenes showing the work of student volunteers in Hiroshima.

The other monuments mentioned below are scattered in different parts of the Memorial Park built across the river.

Peace Flame

The Peace Flame was lit in 1964 with the pledge that it will remain lit until all nuclear bombs on the planet are eliminated and the earth is free of nuclear bombs.

Memorial Cenotaph

The Cenotaph is an empty tomb to remember the persons who died in the bombing. It is located near the center of the park and is a concrete, saddle-shaped monument. The stone under the arch has the names of all of the people killed by the bomb. It was built on the open field and inaugurated on August 6, 1952. In the image below you can see the flame and the Genbaku dome seen from the Cenotaph arch.

Children's Peace Monument

This monument has a central pillar with a girl standing at the top holding in her hands an Orizuro paper crane. There are two more figures of children on the sides of the pillar.

It represents the story of a girl called Sasaki Sadako who had radiation sickness due to the bombing and believed that if she could make one thousand Orizuro she will be cured. However, Sasaki did not survive.

This monument remembers her and the other children who died in the bombing. People place streamers of paper cranes near this monument.

Peace Bell & Peace Clock

There are different bells in the Memorial park and museum. One of these bells placed in the garden has the words "Know yourself" written in Greek, Japanese and Sanskrit.

Every morning at quarter past eight, the time of the bombing, a clock placed on a metal tower near the park entrance, plays a peace prayer.

Prayer Monument

This monument has a sculpture of a couple with a child. It was created by artist Yoshizumi Yokoe in 1960. In front of the monument is a stone with a poem by a Hiroshima-born poet called Atsuo Oki, whose title is "Praying for peace and peaceful repose of the departed souls".

National Peace Memorial Hall

This underground hall designed by Kenzo Tange was built by the national government of Japan in 2002. It presents the stories of the bomb survivors and their old photographs. The image below shows a fountain built at the top of the hall.

Hiroshima Flower Festival

This festival is held in the first week of May each year in the Peace Memorial Park. When I visited Hiroshima in the last week of April, they had started preparing the flower for this festival but it was not yet complete. The image below shows the preparation of the flower.

Mother and Child in the Storm

This is another beautiful sculpture in the Peace Memorial Park expressing the hope for peace by the ordinary people. It was made by the artist Shin Hongo for the women associations of Hiroshima in 1960.


Every monument and sculpture in the Peace Memorial Park of Hiroshima is about peace, hope, and prayers. Yet in spite of the sufferings of thousands of persons, we continue to live in a world that threatens new man-made disasters and catastrophes. The lessons from the holocaust of the Jews or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, are forgotten. So what should we do as individuals?

I believe that at individual level only we can promote a culture of respectful dialogue. The visit to Hiroshima was a reminder to renew my personal commitment for a culture of non-violence, the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and the search for peace. I understand that this does not stop people fuelled by ignorance or hate or bigotry, but still as an individual I prefer to choose peace and dialogue.

I want to conclude this post with the picture of an old man who was sitting near the river bank behind the Genbaku dome, feeding the birds from his hands.


Monday, 15 May 2017

Okayama, City of the Crow-Castle

This year I received a work invitation to Okayama in Japan. I did not know anything about Okayama before going there. It was a wonderful surprise to discover this bustling city with its beautiful riverside castle, gardens and museums. The image below is from the wonderful Korakuen gardens of Okayama.

This post is about my explorations of Okayama. All the places mentioned in this post are at a walkable distance from the railway station.

Okayama and the fable of Momotaro

Okayama is one of the bigger cities in the south-west part of Japan. It is the city of the fable of Momotaro, the Peach-boy.

According to the fable, an old woman found a peach fruit. When she opened the peach, inside she found a baby boy, who told her that God had sent him to be their son. He was given the name of Momotaro (Momo = peach +Taro = elder son). When Momotaro grew up, together with his animal friends, a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, he went to fight Oni-demons. He killed the demons and came home with their treasures and lived happily ever after with his old parents.

The statue of Momotaro greets persons arriving at Okayama railway station. The main road in front of the railway station is called Momotaro Dori road which takes you to Okayama castle.

Ekimae Market

Right across from the east exit of Okayama station is the Ekimae covered market. Full of shops and restaurents, along with an occasional hotel, I had great fun walking up and down this market. Most Japanese shops have boards and food-menu only in Japanese, so I loved trying to understand what different shops were selling.

Nishigawa canal and street

I think that the area around the Nishigawa canal was part of old Okayama before the city was destroyed during the second World War. Rest of Okayama is a newly built city.

With the calm canal waters, gardens, trees, fountains and sculptures on both sides of this quaint canal, I loved this part of Okayama. The image below has a sculpture built along the Nishigawa canal.

Okayama Symphony Hall

This round-shaped modern building was built in 1991. It is close to Shiroshita round-about on Momotaro Dori road. Designed by the well-known Japanese architect Yoshinobu Ashihara, the Okayama symphony hall is famous for its acoustics.

While you admire the symphony hall, I suggest that you should also go down the underground crossing at Shiroshita round-about. A colourful tower-like construction jutts out of this round-about.

It has a lovely sculpture of a woman and a crane. The crane is a common motif in Okayama city. Its statues are there in the city and live cranes can be seen at the aviary in Korakuen park.

Parks around Asahi river

Crossing the Shiroshita round-about will bring you to the core cultural zone of Okayama. This area is marked by a number of parks along the two sides of Asahi river, along with a number of sculptures.

Along the river, a large number of persons walk, cycle and jog or do exercises. On one side, you can see the Okayama castle while a bridge will take you to the famous Korakuen gardens.

Crow-castle of Okayama

The black-coloured castle was built in the sixteenth century. It was also called U-Jo or the Crow castle. The old castle had the roof gilded in gold and was thus called the Gold-crow castle.

During the Meijo reformation period (1868-1912), the medieval castles were seen as problematic and thus even the Okayama castle was partly abandoned, its moat was filled and its walls disappeared. The remaining castle building was razed to ground during the second World War.

The present castle was built in 1966 as a concrete building. A few parts of the castle were gilded in 1996 when its 400th anniversary was celebrated. Outside, some remains of the old castle have been identified including the old walls and a pond. Parts of the old moat have also been recreated.

Korakauen Gardens

The three hundred years old Korakuen Gardens are counted among the most beautiful Japanese gardens. The aesthetic principles defining the beauty of the zen gardens in Japan include - Kanso (simplicity), Fukinsei (asymmetry), Shizen (naturalness), Yugen (subtletly), Datsuzoku (unusual), Seijaku (stillness) and Shibui (austerity). Trees with branches tending towards the ground are especially appreciated. These ideals are expressed in the Korakuen gardens in different ways.

These gardens were created for Ikeda Mitsumasa in the early 17th century as a place for private relaxation. Cherry, maple and pine trees were planted. The artificial hill called Yuishinzan (in the image above) was constructed by his son Ikeda Tsugumasa. At the same time, the water canal was also built.  The name Korakuen garden was given in 1871 and in 1884, these were opened to public.

The garden has a central pond called Sawa no Ike with different miniature islands such as Nakanoshima and Minoshima. I personally liked a smaller pond near the main gate called Kayo no Ike with a bamboo groove, some shrines and the Eisho bridge. This part also includes the archaeological remains of some stairs from the old dock used by Daimyo. While I visited Korakuen, it was full of young school children who were adding colours to its beauty.

Museums of Okayama

Okayama Prefactural Museum is located near the main gate of Korakuen Gardens. A short walk from here will take you to a museum dedicated to an Okayama artist called Takehisa Yumeji. If you do not have the time to visit the Yumeji museum, you can admire some of his paintings which adorn the bridge leading to his house (in the image below).

Two more museums, Okayama Prefactural Museum of Art and the Oriental Museum are located on the main street near the Shiroshita round-about.


Even if my stay in Okayama was short, I really liked this city. I stayed at Toyoko-inn near the Ekimae market and it was a perfect place to visit the city.

Among the different restaurents of Okayayama where I ate, I want to nominate Hajime at the Shiroshita round-about, where the people were really nice, the food and the ambiance (bookshelves full of Manga comics) were great.

I want to conclude this post with another sculpture from Okayama - this one is placed near the Western exit of JR Station. I want to apologise for not mentioning the artists of the different sculptures presented in this post. Their names were written exclusively in Japanese and I was unable to read them. However, if you can tell me the names of these artists in the comments below, I will be honoured to add them to this post.

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