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Rabbit Island

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
11 May 2015

Who isn't just a wee bit jealous of Alice and wished to be able to follow that white rabbit down the rabbit hole for an adventure in Wonderland? If you visit Okunoshima, Japan, also known as Usagi Jima, or Rabbit Island, you'll be able to follow the white rabbit and his friends of various colors. Well, that's not exactly right. The rabbits will be the ones following you, waiting for pellet handouts that you bought just for them from the vending machines around their island.

You're probably wondering why the bunnies are on the island to begin with, but that's not known for sure. One theory is that a few rabbits were brought to the island by visiting school children about 1970 and proliferated because, well, that's what rabbits do. Besides that, they have no natural predators. Or, according to some, there is a darker explanation that will be revealed later in this article.

Getting there

Rabbit Island is easy to get to. It's near Hiroshima City and you can hop on a ferry from Tadanoumi (Hiroshima) or Omishima (Ehime). Rabbit Island is part of the Setonaika National Park in the Inland Sea of Japan that encompasses about 3,000 islands. If you climb up to the observation platform at the visitor center, you'll have a magnificent view of several other islands, so whatever camera you happen to have along will come in very handy.

What to do

The main attraction is, of course, looking at, feeding, and photographing the hundreds of rabbits on their resort island. They're everywhere, so no matter where you wander on the island, you'll have friends who expect benefits of food. In the midst of the rabbits, you can visit sites on the island and enjoy other activities. You can:

  • Rent a car — Oops. Can't do that, as there are no cars allowed on the island.
  • Go to the visitor center—It's free. Along with the observation platform, there are benches right on the Seto Island Sea to enjoy the views and some giant "rabbit ears" to listen to the ocean in a unique way.
  • Stay on the island overnight—There is a large hotel on the island where you can also buy lunch and get directions. Or, you and your family can camp under the stars at the small campground.
  • Rent a bicycle — The island has very steep hills that might be easier to walk up than to try to pedal up on a bicycle.
  • Play six holes of golf
  • Swim in the clear, clean water at beaches on the island
  • Visit historic ruins — There are many ruins of forts on the island that are condemned or not safe to enter, but you can still identify them. The middle and the northern battery ruins are a couple of the popular ruins.
  • See the small lighthouse with long views of the sea.
  • Tour the Poison Gas Museum — The museum, opened in 1988, explains the effects of poison on humans. The displays are in Japanese, but there are English translations of the summaries. Donated artifacts document the harsh realities of the history of this island.
  • The hidden history of Rabbit Island

    The island has had a checkered and interesting past. It was a cultivated island inhabited by just a handful of farming families until the turn of the 20th century. That's when the Japanese built five forts on the island to fend off the Russians during the Russo-Japanese War.

    Jumping ahead in time, Okunoshima played a major part in WWII. The Japanese Imperial Army designed a high-level, top-secret program to develop chemical weapons. They selected the isolated island as the perfect site for the chemical plant because it was far enough from Tokyo to not be a disaster threat.

    The Japanese had signed the Geneva Protocol, which banned the development and use of chemical weapons, but they built the secret chemical plant anyway. After manufacturing the chemical weapons, they used them on China. Development of the weapons was so top secret and the plant was so secure that the island wasn't even put on maps during that time. Neither the residents nor the plant workers were informed about what really was being produced within those walls. The harsh and difficult conditions that the workers toiled under while producing poison gasses resulted in various ailments. The Japanese government later provided treatment for the workers' disabilities.

    Just as Hiroshima has the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that documents the atomic bombing by others that occurred during WWII, Okunoshima has the Poison Gas Museum that documents the aggressive role that the Japanese played during history. The Japanese have been loudly criticized for accusing other countries about aggressive actions, but have been slow to acknowledge incidents of Japanese aggression. When we visited the Peace Memorial Museum, we asked directions of an older local man. He looked us over, spotted my husband's hat that identified us as Americans, pointed at it and said in broken English, "Not your country." He wouldn't give us directions because he remained angry about the war, a war that we were too young to remember. I felt such shame that to this day, it is painful to remember the incident. I felt that he was quick to judge us based only on our nationality, and from that point, I admit that I tried to pass for Canadian during the remainder of our visit to Hiroshima. That kind of extreme nationalism and stereotyping, although I didn't find it typical in Japan, still can be present especially in those who had relatives who suffered or died in the bombing. The Museum of Poison Gas is an example of the recent movement in Japan to respond to criticisms from the outside world and present a more balanced view of history to its own citizens. However, recent attempts to present a more balanced view of Japan's role during WWII in Japanese history textbooks have been soundly rebuffed.

    Now you know

    Now you know a little of the history of this island. It's time to reveal the darker reason that the rabbits might have been brought to Rabbit Island. Think of the canaries in mines. They function as an early warning device that there are dangerous fumes in the coal mine. If canaries sicken and die, humans could also fall ill or worse, so the miners evacuate the mine at that first sign of trouble. Likewise, the idea of putting the rabbits on the island may have been to check to see if the island was safe for visitors and habitation. If the rabbits become sick or died, then the island might be too contaminated for humans. Whether the rabbits were brought to Okunoshima by school children on a trip or scientists attempting to determine the presence of contamination, they emigrated with human assistance to grow and multiply on the island. They now provide an unusual and fun opportunity for Japanese and international tourists who visit the island.

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