Photographs of three 18th Century Dutch buttons uncovered from the riverbed of the Amstel

This week I learned: Below the Surface and Ōkunoshima

This week I learned about the website that lets you take a deep dive into the history of Amsterdam, and took a deep dive of my own into the unsettling history of a Japanese island full of bunnies.

Below the Surface takes a dive into Dutch history

Between 2003 and 2012, archaeologists in Amsterdam gained unprecedented access to a vital element of the history of the city and the landscape it was built on: the bed of the River Amstel.

The Amstel, like so many urban waterways, has been a hub of urban life since the very beginning of the city – used for trade, recreation, and even waste disposal. Prior to Amsterdam’s founding around 1300 AD, the area was home to seasonal habitation as far back as the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (2700-1800 BC). Because the Amstel is a flow-moving river with a soft, silty bed, its sediments have accrued a vast number of objects – fallen from river vessels, dropped by passers-by or, for that matter, deliberately dumped. This makes it a rich source of evidence about the everyday activities of the people living by or visiting the river.

In 2003, construction began on a new underground train line, including two stations sunk directly beneath the Amstel. Dutch archaeologists seized the opportunity, working with construction crews to collect and catalogue everything uncovered as the works progressed deeper and deeper into the sediment. And I do mean everything: from mobile phones to 4,000-year-old beaver teeth.

In total, the project uncovered 697,235 finds and catalogued 134,282 individual objects (many of the items, such as pottery, were recovered in pieces, accounting for the much larger initial number). Now the Department of Archaeology has published a complete visual catalogue online, and it’s a truly fascinating to explore.

If you want a curated experience, you can tour a selection of the objects on display in the new Rokin Subwaystation, complete with historical commentary. But you can also browse the entire visual catalogue, sorted chronologically (that’s how I stumbled across this 500-year-old die, this 650-year-old sealing ring, and this 400-year-old tombstone); or filter the findings by category (“garment fastener” let me compare this beautiful 18th Century button with its 15th Century precursor, not to mention its modern counterpart).

For a bit of fun, you can even curate your own display and share it on the site (I’m rather fond of this one).

N.B. Though smartphone-optimised, this is a script-heavy site – I recommend using a decent internet connection to browse it.

Bunnies and poison gas: the history Japan tried to forget

“There’s an island filled with bunnies… and poison gas!” This was my introduction to Ōkunoshima, the Japanese island now nicknamed Usagishima: Rabbit Island. Videos like this one show just how tame – and how numerous – the wild rabbits of Ōkunoshima are. But the further you delve into the island’s history, the less cute it gets.

It starts with articles like this, claiming that the bunnies of Ōkunoshima are the descendants of test subjects released at the end of World War II, when the poison gas factory operating on the island was shut down. There seems to be more fable than fact in this account; Japanese sources suggest these rabbits’ ancestors were released on the island much more recently. But there was a poison gas facility on the island, and there were test subjects. Many of these were rabbits – “about 200 of the poor things” according to Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics – but some of them were human.

Chemicals weapons were already in use by European forces at the end of World War I. Reports of these weapons attracted the attention of the Japanese government, who sent military personnel to Europe and the US to investigate this form of warfare. In the late 1920’s, construction began on a poison gas factory on Ōkunoshima – chosen because its proximity to the mainland made it feasible to transport large numbers of workers, while its location and geography made it easy to conceal what was going on there.

Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka’s 1988 article ‘Poison Gas; the story Japan would like to forget’ details the way Chinese prisoners of war (captured during the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945, which merged with the broader conflict of World War II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour) were made to stand in different forms of shelter, with or without gas masks, so the Japanese could gauge the effects of dropping mustard gas shells on them.

In the field, the products of the Ōkunoshima factory were used on thousands of Chinese soldiers. Equally horrifying were their effects on the Japanese workers employed to produce the chemicals, who suffered everything from blindness to chronic pulmonary conditions. From Tanaka’s gripping account:

According to records kept by the Chinese army, at least 2,000 Chinese were killed, and 35,000 injured, by Japanese chemical weapons during World War II. As for the Japanese workers, nearly 6,000 have been recognized by the Ministry of Health as suffering from their wartime work.

During the war, Ōkunoshima was erased from Japanese maps. Factory workers were forbidden from discussing their work on the mainland, even with each other; military police and spies concealed among the workers were used to ensure compliance. Even 40 years after the end of the war, knowledge of Japanese chemical warfare was still heavily suppressed; Tanaka reports how, in 1984, the Ministry of Education ordered a Japanese publisher to remove references to chemical warfare from their high school history textbook on the basis thatthere is no concrete evidence to prove such activities by the Japanese Imperial Army. Against that backdrop, Tanaka’s article (published outside Japan, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) was a radical work of exposure.

If there’s a silver lining to Ōkunoshima’s clouded history, it is this: in 1988, the same year Tanaka’s article was published, the island became home to the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum. Displays presented primarily in Japanese tell the story of the island’s – and Japan’s – involvement in chemical warfare. The museum was created by local citizens and local government, in defiance of the national government’s attempts to erase this chapter of the nation’s history.

In a nation more often remembered as a victim of World War II, the people behind the Ōkunoshima museum are determined not to let Japan forget its own darkest moments. That’s an attitude more countries could benefit from.

Images ©Harold Strak, used with permission.
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