Japan’s Rabbit Island of Ōkunoshima

There’s a tiny island called Ōkunoshima in the Inland Sea of Japan, in the city of Takehara in Hiroshima Prefecture. It could be just any small island out of Japan’s 6,852 islands. What makes Ōkunoshima different is that it is also known as Usagi Jima (うさぎ島) or Rabbit Island because of the unbelievable number of feral rabbits that call it home.

Ōkunoshima was initially cultivated land and home to three fishing families. During the Russo-Japanese War (8 February 1904 – 5 September 1905), when the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan fought over Manchuria and Korea, ten forts were built to protect Ōkunoshima. The island was chosen for its isolated location, because it was easy to secure, and not close to the capital city, Tokyo.

Okunoshima

Ōkunoshima. | Vickerman625

In 1925, the Imperial Japanese Army Institute of Science and Technology started a secret program to develop chemical weapons after the Japanese government discovered that Europe and the United States were producing chemical weapons. Japan took extra care in keeping this a secret because the country was a part of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use of chemical warfare. Even if the storage and development of chemical weapons was not technically banned, Japan still went to great lengths to assure the secrecy of constructing a chemical munitions plant in 1929. The island was even removed from some of the maps of Japan. The Japanese military turned the local fish preservation processor into a toxic gas reactor without telling any of the local residents. The people who lived in the island, who were also employed by the plant, had no clue what the plant was manufacturing. Working conditions were harsh and many of the people suffered from toxic-exposure related illnesses.

rabbit2It took about two years (from 1927 to 1929) to complete the plant, and it produced over six kilotons of mustard gas (a chemical with the ability to form large blisters on the exposed skin and in the lungs) and tear gas. When World War II ended, many documents concerning the plant were burned and Allied Occupation Forces disposed of the gas.

The island of Ōkunoshima was converted into a park after World War II, and rabbits were set loose in the island. Many rabbits had been used in the chemical munitions plant to test the effectiveness of the chemicals being developed, and all of the rabbits died when the plant was finally demolished. The rabbits running freely in the island had no connection whatsoever with the rabbits used for testing. The rabbit population grew, and today the rabbits are in vast numbers. Hunting them is explicitly forbidden, and dogs or cats are not allowed on the island.

Rabbits near a dilapidated building. | GetHiroshima.com

Ōkunoshima island is accessible by ferry from Tadanoumi and Ōmishima. There are campsites for visitors, as well as walking trails and other places of historic interest. The rabbits are tame and will willingly approach anyone kind enough to feed them. The Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum opened in 1988 to give visitors a glimpse of the story behind Ōkunoshima island.

In this YouTube video by BB Bunny, a man feeding rabbits is almost overwhelmed by them:

rabbitsvid

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY-GncsZ-UE