The Albuquerque of the Far East
But where, exactly, is this magical land of rabbits? Welcome to Okunoshima Island, a tiny spot of land in Japan.
Okunoshima Island was almost entirely uninhabited for much of the early 20th century. And if you look at this map (and you may want to zoom in), you’ll note a couple other features of the island. Besides being empty, it’s an internal island — it is in the Seto Island Sea, a body of water almost entirely surrounded by three of the larger Japanese islands, and therefore sheltered from outside marine traffic. And second, it’s pretty far from most of Japan’s major population centers, at least relative to other areas of Japan. Taken together, Okunoshima is a great place if you want to do something potentially dangerous which needs to be kept quiet.
And no, breeding an army of rabbits isn’t all that dangerous. But during World War II, the Japanese were using Okunoshima for a much more nefarious use — they were developing chemical weapons there. And that may be why the rabbits are there, too. (Maybe.)
In 1925, Japan agreed to not use chemical weapons as part of the Geneva Convention, and while the accord did not prohibit the development of such arms, the Japanese government decided to keep their work in the area quiet anyway, choosing.Okunoshima due to its relative seclusion. The research continued through World War II, and, during testing, rabbits were brought to the island as floppy-eared guinea pigs (figuratively speaking, of course). After the war, the poison gas laboratories were shuttered and the island was turned into a tourist attraction. Today, there are an untold number of rabbits freely roaming the island — estimates range from about 300 to a few thousand.
Whether the rabbits there today are descendants of these test rabbits is in question, reports animal news site TheDodo.com:
According to Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics at the University of California San Diego, it’s highly unlikely that the two generations of rabbits are related.
“The rabbits are not descendants used in chemical weapons tested during the war,” Krauss said. “The test rabbits were all euthanized by the Americans when they came to the island during the Occupation . . . about 200 of the poor things were being [used] in experiments by the Japanese.”
So how did the rabbits get there? If the bunnies aren’t from the World War II-era ones, the Guardian notes, “the other theory is that eight rabbits were brought to the island by schoolchildren in 1971, where they bred (presumably like rabbits) until they reached their current population.” Either way, the island is now full of feral rabbits. But don’t worry, they’re docile and friendly — and appreciate tourists with snacks.
If you want to visit, you can take a ferry from Tadanoumi Station near Hiroshima. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see this bunny sign.
From the Archives: Down the Rabbit Hole: Why Australia and rabbits don’t mix.
Related: A pet rabbit handbook.