Japan’s Terrifying Gasmask Islands

By Morris M. on Monday, July 22, 2013
izu
“Down here, with a roof to cover us and a gasmask handy, it is our business to puncture gasbags and discover the seeds of truth.” —Virginia Woolfe

In a Nutshell

Off the coast of mainland Japan, a chain of islands called the Izu Islands sits beneath a cloud of sulphur. For the gasmask-wearing residents, every day is a challenge of survival.

The Whole Bushel

Japan’s Izu Islands exist somewhere on the scale between ‘endlessly fascinating’ and ‘utterly terrifying’. Formed from the raised tops of an underwater volcanic chain, the islands are lush, beautiful and exceedingly deadly. Infrequent eruptions devastate whole islands. Earthquakes shake the entire archipelago. But deadliest of all are the clouds of sulphur which hang like a fog across the island of Miyakejima, trailing chaos in their wake. It’s the sort of place you’d have to be exceedingly mad or exceedingly dead to call ‘home’ – yet nearly 3,000 people choose to live there, at the fringes of human endurance.

Most of their lives are spent hidden behind gasmasks. On the few occasions when the sulphur levels drop low enough for normal breathing, they’re legally required to have a mask within arm’s reach. At least a third of the island is still uninhabitable following a 2000 eruption that forced all three thousand residents to flee for five years. Even in those areas where things are almost back to normal, an air-raid siren can sound at any time, warning of approaching gas-cloud-death. Yet most islanders don’t want to leave. In fact, the opposite occurs: every year, a whole bunch of tourists show up, hoping to play out their apocalyptic fantasies. How many of them make it through the holiday alive is a statistic we’d rather not know.

Show Me The Proof

Atlas Obscura: Gas Mask Tourism on the Izu Islands
io9: On one Japanese island, everyone always carries a gas mask
Guardian: Residents ordered to flee volcano island