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article imageRabbits make haven of former chemical weapons production facility

By Shawn Kay     Mar 28, 2011 in World
Takehara - A serene and isolated island getaway that has been described as enchanting, with a dark and disturbing past as a top secret chemical weapons site during Japan's imperial era, is now a virtual paradise for hordes of rabbits numbering in the hundreds.
Cute, adorable, cuddly, sweet and lovable; you're likely to run out of adjectives while trying to adequately sum up this odd occurrence taking place on the Japanese island of Okunoshima.
Okunoshima is a small island that is about four kilometers or two and a half miles long. The island happens to be a part of Takehara, a city located in Hiroshima Prefecture.
Okunoshima is located some three kilometers or a little over one mile off the main coast of Takehara.
The rather sizable community of rabbits currently on the island of Okunoshima are believed to be the descendants of an original group of eight rabbits abandoned there in 1971.
Ōkunoshima island is a part of the Japanese city of Takehara which is located in Hiroshima Prefectu...
Ōkunoshima island is a part of the Japanese city of Takehara which is located in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan.
The rabbits were pets at an elementary school in Takehara, but school officials at the time found them to be too difficult to care for and were looking for a location to abandon them.
Eventually, the school's rabbit dilemma was solved when Okunoshima was settled upon as the dumping ground for the rabbits.
The rabbits were set loose to run free on the island, and live the rest of their days in the wild.
At the time the school could not have foreseen what ramifications their actions would later have.
That was 40 years ago.
Fast-forward to present day, and Okunoshima is now a virtual rabbit habitat.
The lesson to be taken away from all of this is as follows: when a small group of rabbits are released into a warm weather environment with virtually no natural enemies to speak of, the result is what you currently have at Okunoshima - an explosion in the rabbit population.
There is an estimated population of 300 rabbits on the island today. And, of course, that population is continuing to grow.
National Phenomenon and Tourist Hotspot
The island is now also becoming something of a tourist destination as people from all points in Japan come to see the feral rabbits.
Tourists bring cameras to take photographs and video cameras to film videos of the endemic creatures frolicking about.
Many videos based on the rabbits of Okunoshima are posted on the social networking and film sharing site, Youtube.
Videos of the rabbits can also be viewed on Japan Probe, an online news website.
According to accounts from tourists that have been to the island, the rabbits are extremely social and unabashedly approach any and all visitors.
But if you really want to be a superstar among the rabbits there, pull out some cabbage, celery and/or carrots within eyesight of the rabbits. In a matter of seconds three or four dozen rabbits will swarm and surround you.
Videos that have been posted online of the rabbits show them jockeying for position at the feet of tourists holding goodies, each trying to get a taste.
According to The Manichi Daily News, a Tokyo-based daily news publication, tourists say that "the rabbits became popular for their adorable gesture asking for food."
Though some may be taken aback or even entirely put off by how aggressively social the rabbits are, they are always friendly and mean no harm.
Okunoshima is relatively unknown outside of Japan and is even little known among the citizens of that nation. But for the Japanese who do know about the island, they refer to it as "Rabbit Island."
The Dark Past of Okunoshima Island
There was a time not very long ago when this island wasn't so fluffy or cute.
From 1929 to 1945, Okunoshima island was a base for the Imperial Japanese Army's chemical warfare activities.
Unit 516 was a special research program responsible for operations and research involving chemical weapons.
This specialized outfit was made up of some of the best and brightest chemists and scientific minds in Japan as well as miscellaneous personnel. The total number of members was believed to be at 6,000.
Unit 516 made Qiqihar their main headquarters after the Imperial Japanese Army invaded and occupied northern China upon defeating Chinese forces. The occupation would last from 1931 to 1945.
Though Unit 516 is not exactly mentioned by name in relation to the past chemical weapons research activities that have taken place at Okunoshima, it is known that chemical weapons and warfare was the exclusive province of that special military research program. Thus, research and warfare options involving toxic weapons, the operations of facilities and laboratories, as well as anything else involving Imperial Japan and chemical warfare was typically handled by Unit 516.
Okunoshima was likely a research and command outpost for Unit 516.
The island was purportedly considered an ideal location for chemical weapons manufacturing and research because of it's remote and difficult to access location (you have to take a ferry to reach it).
Most Japanese did not (and still do not) know that the island actually exists. The island did not appear in official maps mainly because Imperial Japan denied it's existence.
The island and it's activities were considered a top secret military resource of the Japanese empire.
Okunoshima was a nerve center for Imperial Japan's chemical warfare operations during the Second World War.
Between 1937 and 1945, Imperial Japan, with the assistance of Unit 516, is believed to have launched at least 889 chemical attacks during it's occupation of China, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. Many thousands more were left maimed.
Unit 516 maintained an extensive chemical weapons arsenal.
Some of the more lethal chemical warfare agents produced by Unit 516 were: mustard gas, lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene and white phosphorus.
The poison gas produced at Okunoshima took the lives of many Chinese soldiers on the battlefield as well as the lives of countless thousands of Chinese civilians.
However, just because someone wields chemical weapons does not mean that they are immune to it's effects or the master of it.
Indeed, the only master and purpose such weapons serve are that of death. Suffice it to say that the Chinese were not the only lives claimed or scared by these weapons.
Though highly skilled, knowledgeable and competent in the dark arts of chemical warfare, Unit 516 members occasionally found themselves as victims of the very same weapons they were using against their foes.
Accidents would occasionally occur at some of Unit 516's chemical weapons facilities and as a result some of the workers assigned to work at these locations became sicken.
Some died while those who lived continue to suffer from health ailments caused by toxic gases.
Upon Imperial Japan's surrender to the U.S. during the Second World War, Unit 516 immediately disbanded and many of it's members went into hiding to avoid being charged with war crimes.
At the end of the Second World War, the international community condemned the experiments and military actions of Unit 516 as war crimes of the highest order.
The chemical weapons facilities on Okunoshima have since fallen into disarray and ruin. Empty shells of their former selves and relics of the dark prestige and might of Unit 516 and Imperial Japan.
The burned-out ruins of a chemical weapons facility on Okunoshima.
The burned-out ruins of a chemical weapons facility on Okunoshima.
No One Lives Here Anymore - Well, Except For 300 Or So Rabbits
The Okunoshima of modern day is a far cry from it's brutal and murderous past.
Today, with the exception of the rabbits, the island is largely uninhabited. Industrial ruins and faculty buildings litter the landscape. If you look hard enough you may be able to find remnants of the island's dark past in the form of empty and rusted gas canisters. A massive power plant that once powered all the chemical weapons plants and other facilities on the island, has not been in service since the Second World War and currently lays decayed and derelict.
It is amidst this grim backdrop of industrial ruins that the rabbits of the island frolic and tourist flock to see them.
Over the past few decades, the growing rabbit community has been the single most responsible factor for the resurgence and vitalization of the island.
They have changed it from that of a ghost town island that once served as a base for killer mad scientists, to a increasingly popular tourist location.
A young Canadian woman by the name of Julie who happens to be living in Japan to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) courses was actually one of the relatively few westerners to actually set foot on Okunoshima.
The adventurous young woman visited the island last Spring with some friends and posted her experiences on her blog, which is titled, Julie in Japan. The blog is an online journal of her musings and life in Japan.
Here is a blog entry posted by Julie on her experience in Okunoshima :
The island doesn’t have many people, but it has a ton of rabbits. If you buy some celery, lotus root or lettuce, hundreds of rabbits will come running at you. They don’t bite and they are tame, so you can pick them up and pet them as much as you like. They were like little dogs. I had never seen an affectionate rabbit before.
Most Japanese people don’t know about Okunoshima because it was not drawn on Japan’s map during WW2. Even now, it is so small and annoying to get to that hardly anyone ever goes. Almost nothing about how to get there is written in English, so that means that it is not a popular tourist attraction for foreign people. I imagine that Okunoshima gets busy in the springtime, but last week, my friends and I only saw 3 other small groups of people. We were almost alone on the island.
Julie also notes the increasing popularity of this destination despite it being rather difficult to access:
Despite being somewhat difficult to find, however, it is gaining in popularity as a tourist destination as word of mouth spreads.
Okunoshima is still not on many official maps of Japan, but whereas in the past this was to keep the island's wartime activities secret, it is now purportedly left out because Japan is ashamed of those same wartime activities that once took place there.
In some respects, the rabbits are giving the island a chance of redemption as it now has a more tasteful and adorable claim to fame than that of it's nefarious past.
Yet another factor that may be stifling Okunoshima's growth as a tourist destination may be the actual commute to get there.
The commute to the island has been described as a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating ordeal that may deter the less adventurous amongst us.
According to Julie's blog posting, the actual process of getting to Okunoshima consists of a two hour train or bus ride from Hiroshima to reach a ferry that will take you to the island.
While it is readily known that the island is largely void of human life, it is not exactly deserted either.
Besides the low but steady stream of tourists that venture on and off this bunny island paradise, there are also a small number of businesses.
On the island there is the Kyukamura Okunoshima hotel, a hot springs resort, several tennis courts right next to the ocean, pools, bicycle rental and fields for playing sports. There are also hiking trails. There is a museum that pays tribute to the victims of chemical warfare throughout the world. There is also a visitor/tourist center where you can go to get official information or assistance.
The businesses cater to the island's tourism industry, which also happens to be their sole source of revenue.
And, of course, there would not be a tourism industry to speak of if not for the rabbits whom the tourists come to see.
Another notable tourist attraction is that of the chemical weapons museum on the island. The museum is meant to serve as a tribute to all lives lost to chemical warfare and contains exhibits educating people on the horrors of these weapons. However, you may want to bring along a translator because very few of the exhibits are in English.
Perhaps a gesture of a nation still seeking full redemption for it's past, the museum stands in stark contrast to the ruins of chemical weapons plants on the island.
In the past, the main tourist base for the island consisted of students on school study trips, senior tourists and day-trippers. However, with the growing popularity of the island and it's rabbit population, more young couples, single women and families are frequenting the location and taking vacations.
Okunoshima has been very fortunate in regards to the series of disasters that have gripped the rest of Japan lately.
Because Okunoshima is located in southwest Japan, it has remained largely unaffected by the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis that have all occurred in northeast Japan earlier this month.
More about Chemical weapons, Chemical warfare, Japan, unit 516, War crimes
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