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The Mystery of Japan’s Rabbit Island

This island is a bunny-filled paradise.

Image Credit: Tak H/Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s “Rabbit Island” certainly lives up to its namesake; being home to well over 700 rabbits has made the island a tourism hot-spot. But how did the island gain its reputation as a bunny-filled paradise? And what dark history is this island hiding?

The small island of Ōkunoshima is only a short ferry ride from Takehara city in Japan’s Hiroshima Prefecture. While the scenic island is certainly a great getaway from Japan’s bustling cities, this one’s gotten international attention due to its most unique feature; the hundreds of rabbits who call it home.

In recent years the island’s gained the name “Usagi Jima”, meaning “Rabbit Island”,  and it’s easy to see why. From the moment you set foot on Ōkunoshima you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by a horde of the most adorable kind. The rabbits of Ōkunoshima are known for being surprisingly tame, often swarming visitors in search of food pellets, which can be purchased from the island’s main store. With no natural predators and regualr visits from food-bearing tourists, Ōkunoshima is certainly a rabbit’s utopia; but this begs the question, how did the island get this way?

The Dark History of Rabbit Island

While Ōkunoshima may initially appear to be a bunny-filled paradise, the island is actually home to a surprisingly dark history; One which might just offer an explanation for the island’s cotton-tailed inhabitants. During World War Two the island was infamous as the location where the Japanese Imperial Army manufactured tons of poisonous gasses. The project was so secretive the island was even removed from official maps to hide the location of the production facility itself.

So how does this history link to the rabbits? Well during the 1920’s it was believed the experimental gasses produced within the facility were tested on rabbits. Following the end of the war, it’s believed the surviving bunnies were released onto the island where they did what rabbits do best and soon their numbers multiplied into the hundreds. Ōkunoshima still bears the scars of this history in plain view, as tourists can visit the ruins of the original facility and the island’s Poison Gas Museum, with both buildings acting as chilling reminders of the role the island played in the war.

Image Credit: Jdlrobson/Wikimedia Commons

Though there are alternative theories for how Ōkunoshima gained its title. Some speculate the rabbits’ origins aren’t as dark as others believe, considering how its likely the original test-rabbits were culled when the USA occupied the island during the war. Instead its believed that in 1971 a group of visiting school kids released some domesticated rabbits onto Ōkunoshima, and due to the lack of predators and plenty of space, their number soon grew. This theory seems to be the most widely believed by locals.

The Downside of Fame

There has also been a somewhat unfortunate side-effect of the island’s fame. Due to Ōkunoshima’s popularity as a tourist destination and the feeding of the feral rabbits allowing their population to reach an all-time high, the island’s ecosystem has been thrown into chaos. As most tourists visit during sunny weather and the summer season, this also means that the rabbits are often left to fend for themselves during the harsher winter months without visitors to depend on, causing issues for their instinctual routines. 

Visitors are encouraged to research the best food sources for bunnies before visiting, as many have been known to feed the rabbits cabbage and similar foods which are potentially harmful to them, luckily you can purchase suitable treats both on the island and elsewhere before visiting to make sure both you and the bunnies get the best out of your visit!

Ōkunoshima definitely has a lot to offer visitors, from historic ruins to fields full of fluffy bunnies, the island makes for an exciting day trip. So if you’re planning to visit Japan and find yourself in the Hiroshima Prefecture, why not check it out? You might just snag yourself a photo-op like no other and learn some interesting history along the way.

Interested in more stories from Japan? Check out the Samurai warriors waging war on Tokyo’s litter.

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