Island Borderlines: Proof-of-Island

By A. D. McCormick

Island Borderlines is a hybrid art-and-geography project that explores the island archetype by testing and challenging island borders. The project takes Japanese islands generally and Naoshima specifically as its test sites, but also links to broader contexts and geographies. This series of journal entries is my way of outlining some of the elemental issues that underpin the project.

As a first installment, I would like to begin considering the physical or material manifestation of islands, which is simultaneously the most obvious and most arbitrary way of describing an island. 

In most of our conversations about islands, two fundamentals dominate, which we might call the idea-of-island and the proof-of-island. These roughly fit into qualitative and quantitative buckets respectively, but both are tropes. Godfrey Baldacchino observes that, particularly among non-islanders, the idea of an island is typically saturated with images of palm trees, beaches, and sunshine, attesting to the dominance of the tropics in island fantasies and discourses. But before all this, islands are first described in a more rudimentary way. As Baldacchino describes it: “Ask anyone to take a sheet of paper and to draw an island as seen from the air. Most likely, that person would draw a stylized image of a piece of land, without much detail other than being surrounded by water. It would fit within the space confines of the sheet. It would also, uncannily, have an approximately circular shape.”

The crude, “approximately circular” line marks an island’s shores, suggesting that an island is as easily encapsulated as it is generic: set apart from the non-island water, contained unto itself. And an island is only affirmatively an island when its entire area is represented. This is the proof-of-island. Viewed from a boat, an island could be simply the end of a peninsula, its connection to mainland hidden from view. With an overhead perspective, we know for sure that it’s an island.

"Unproven" islands.

But the more we think about this cartoon logic, the quicker it falls apart. If the island is the portion of the earth’s surface that rises above the waves, then how does the sea’s rhythm affect it? Does that barnacled area revealed at low tide that seems not so different from the land just above it suddenly cease to be “island” when it’s submerged? What does it say when such a solid-seeming feature in the landscape in fact contracts and expands constantly?

What if, at especially low tides, it becomes possible to walk to the mainland? Is an island then briefly lose its island status? Perhaps we settle on a “constant” to measure islands, such as mean sea level. But such constants are anything but, particularly in the face of human-generated global warming, when the seas rise and some low-lying islands have already been overcome by the surf. 

Island borders are anything but simple.

Likewise, the earth’s crust is itself changing, with some parts of the world settling while others (like Japan) are on an upward trajectory. Geological time is slow, at least compared to the oceans’ rise, meaning that Japan’s islands are just submerging more slowly than other, more precarious lands. But one remote Japanese island’s surface more than doubled in area recently after a volcano erupted. How fixed can islands be if more island-stuff can squirt out from below at any moment?

Other questions arise. Say we dig below the surface of the island; below mean sea level, below the lowest tide mark, below where the islanders above hunt for clams. At what level do we descend from “within the island” or, perhaps, “under the island’s surface” to “underneath the island”? How far outward can we dig before we have left the island’s border and are simply “underneath the sea”? Here is a section diagram, from Ikko Narahara’s book Human Land, of the coal mine of Hashima, a tiny island near Nagasaki in far-western Japan. The sea floor rises up and is sliced off by a “0m” line that probably represents mean sea level. The little sliver of land above the line is dwarfed by the tunnels below. What here is Hashima and what is not?

Section of Hashima Coal Mine. From "Human Land" by Ikko Narahara.

Until now we have been thinking about the observed properties of islands mostly left to themselves, but now I’ll introduce the role of humans in actively affecting these “natural” conditions, as this is ultimately the focus of the project. Whatever benchmark we use to measure islands, we must then contend with various human factors that are either additive or subtractive to the island’s boundaries. Basically, we add stuff to islands and we take stuff away. On Hashima, Mitsubishi spent a century extracting coal from underground, while simultaneously expanding the island’s dry perimeter to contain a fortresslike micro-city of resident miners and their families. Much more was taken from below than was added above, but it was the additions that caused the island to so resemble a gigantic war vessel that it became known as Gunkanjima or “Battleship Island.”

On Inujima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea, a small mountain of granite was carved away to nothing, generating the material for Okayama and Osaka castles. On the other side of the island, a factory smelted imported copper ore, extracting the metal and forming the remaining slag into dense black bricks, which were used to build walls and blast furnaces. The factory closed over one hundred years ago, but the bricks remain. Many of the old walls still stand, with some incorporated into the museum there. Others fell into the water and were smashed into a black sand that lines the eastern shore.

Slag sand on Inujima.

Slag walls on Inujima holding up despite the tourists.

Stone from neighboring Teshima was carved into lanterns for mainlanders’ gardens. Teshima received a cruel return of sorts with the illegal dumping of toxic waste, corrosive both to its environment and its reputation and the subject of a prolonged and ultimately successful effort to (mostly) get rid of it. It was shipped to Naoshima, where it was recycled in a newer Mitsubishi operation, which also smelts copper like Inujima used to. A mountain of granulated slag looms near the sea there, perhaps fifty meters high, waiting to be mixed into concrete.

Two maps of the same portion of Naoshima, before and after a land reclamation project.

And concrete is of course the main additive element for many inhabited islands, as it was for Gunkanjima, feeding both their vertical and horizontal expansion. On Naoshima, it's the sea walls keeping out the waves. It's a fish processing plant and road where there used to be water. It's the new museums drawing boatloads of tourists. Island borders, expanding almost on a whim, are more dynamic than ever.

Landing at Naoshima.

A worker takes a bag of garbage off the ferry and deposits it on Naoshima. From Naoshima, it will go to a mainland incinerator. But in the interim, the island grows by one bag of trash. This and many other acts in varying degrees of consequence form the complex layering of borders that map islands in physical and experiential space.

In the next installment, I'll consider islands and water.