A grim military past on Japan’s cuddly ‘Rabbit Island’

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The pretty little island of Okunoshima is known for two things: It was there that the Japanese military once cooked up chemical weapons, a mission so guarded that the spot did not exist on official World War II-era maps. And it is totally overrun by fluffy bunny rabbits.

I ended up in Okunoshima out of love and boredom. My fiance has been living and teaching nearby in the tiny seaside town of Tadanoumi, whose attractions include a 7-Eleven, a FamilyMart and a mom-and-pop tempura spot where my fiance manages to hold conversations about sardine tempura and sacred deer in broken Japanese.

To be fair, his Japanese is eloquent compared with mine, which begins and ends with the phrase “Thank you very much.” So as he schooled teenagers one afternoon, it was with some trepidation that I boarded the ferry alone, planning to kill some time — and thank people for things.


This bizarre little island might be one of the oddest day trips you can take in Japan. Experts say military bigwigs chose it as a chemical weapons site in the 1920s, because it was just isolated enough to go unnoticed but close enough to the Japanese mainland to let workers come and go as needed.

“It’s the perfect place for an operation like this,” said Walter Grunden, author of “Secret Weapons & World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science.” “If a toxic cloud is released, it won’t waft onto a city or something. You don’t have people poking around.”

That is, until now. After Japan was defeated in World War II, the program was ended and thousands of tons of poison gas were dumped into the sea. Today it is an off-the-beaten-path destination happily trampled by tourists — both those who love bunnies and those mindful of its military past.

We were met at the ferry by a bright blue bus, which the other tourists boarded. I wandered down the shoreline alone, passing abandoned shrines littered with bunnies. Maps and signposts pointed to tourist favorites such as “Poison gas pavilion,” as hordes of eager rabbits gathered at my feet.

For animal lovers, this sounds downright precious, and it is. But on a gray day, with a chill in the air, it also feels something like the establishing scenes of a Hitchcock movie, before things go so horrifically wrong.

Wander past enough English signs labeled “Remains of the poison gas storehouse” and you can’t help wondering whether the two things that make this island so unusual are, in fact, grimly linked. In 1997, the former director of the poison gas museum told Tokyo journalists that the rabbits now on the island had nothing to do with lab animals in bygone weapons tests. Instead, the story goes, rabbits were left on the island decades ago by schoolchildren — and did what rabbits do so well.


Then again, you could see why this might not be something that “Bunny Island” tourism boosters are really keen to get into.

Okunoshima is already something of a historical sore spot. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof once visited the island and called it “a place to feel guilty” for the Japanese — a reminder that Japan, devastated by the horrors of the atomic bomb, had wartime sins of its own.

Records on the island were burned after Japan’s surrender in 1945, York University senior scholar B.T. Wakabayashi told me. Despite the monuments and some writings by leftist historians, “I don’t know if the general public knows even today” about what once happened there, Wakabayashi said in an email.

Alone on the island, I wandered through forest paths trailed by dwindling numbers of the little thumpers. Descending a wooden staircase, I heard a sudden noise and turned to find a single rabbit, staring.

It was then that I discovered where the blue bus had gone: the breezy island resort center, where pornographic quantities of rabbits swarmed around tourists who proffered scraps of cabbage or carrot. Unafraid, they hopped softly into tourist laps. Toddlers were adorably engulfed.

Elsewhere on the island, in a building I never made it to, a museum is said to lay out the chemical horrors Japan once unleashed on China.


Inside the resort building, however, cuddly bunnies feature on key chains, T-shirts, postcards and plush, unblinking toys. I bought a seashell for my nephew. Why they were selling seashells, I’m not sure.

Then again, I’m never really going to be sure of much of anything about Okunoshima. The cashier asked me something and I shrugged.

“Thank you very much,” I said.