Okunoshima: From Chemical Weapons Plant to Rabbit Sanctuary

Between Kellie’s and Jairus’ trips on the prefectural exchange program, we had a chance to visit with the Araragis in Hiroshima during a short family trip to Japan in 2015. Since I like rabbits, we decided to take a one-day excursion to Okunoshima, also known as “Usagi Island,” or “Rabbit Island.” Okunoshima is a small, 173-acre island in the Seto Inland Sea, off the coast of Hiroshima. It has become an internet sensation, attracting visitors with its videos of tourists feeding the wild rabbits.

The Araragis picked us up from our hotel and drove us to Tadanoumi Port for the short, 12-minute ferry ride to Okunoshima on a beautiful June day.

The island wasn’t always known for the hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of cute, furry rabbits. Due to its isolated location, the Japanese imperial army built a chemical weapons plant on the island in 1927 and produced over 6 kilotons of poisonous mustard gas and tear gas that Japan used as weaponry until 1945. The operation was concealed from the nearby residents, and potential employees were not told what the plant was manufacturing. When World War II ended in 1945, all of the plant’s documents were burned and the chemicals were dumped, burned or buried. Anyone who knew anything about what had gone on on the island was ordered to keep silent.

The first rabbits brought to the island were likely used to test the chemical weapons and are believed to have been killed when the factory was demolished. The Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum, which opened in 1988, claims that the rabbits now living wild and free on the island have no connection to those first test rabbits. Also on the island, in addition to the museum, are the ruins of an old fort that was built during the Russo-Japanese War, a hotel with a restaurant and souvenir shop and a small nature facility. We didn’t know that rabbit food is no longer sold on the island and that we needed to purchase it at Tadanoumi Port before coming over if we planned to feed the rabbits. However, a kind Japanese mother and daughter shared their rabbit food with us and added some carrots, cabbage and a few pieces of what we were told they absolutely love, apples, which gave us the chance to feed the rabbits. We visited Okunoshima on a Saturday and most of the rabbits were already full by the time we got to the island. Still, there were a few that were still hungry so we got to feed them and leave the island happy and satisfied.

Patsy Iwasaki


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