Readers of this site know that rabbits can be fearsome creatures that have struck terror in the hearts of the President Jimmy Carter and Napoleon Bonaparte. Most people, however, think of rabbits are the most skittish of animals, scampering away at the first sight of an approaching human. There is one place where neither of those perceptions is the reality. Welcome to Ōkunoshima Island — the land where rabbits reign.
Located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Hiroshima, Japan, in the Seto Inland Sea, Ōkunoshima Island seems an unlikely place for a rabbit kingdom. For a time, the island could not be found on Japanese maps, due to the presence of the ultra-secret poison gas manufacturing site run by the Japanese Imperial Army. It was there that thousands of tons of poison gas were produced during World War II. An estimated 80,000 people were killed by weapons produced on the island in the 1930s and early 1940s.
In those dark days, rabbits could be found on the island, but they were there as prisoners. Rabbits served as test subjects, determining the effectiveness of the toxic weapons under development. While those rabbits were all killed, either as test subjects or when the weapons factory was demolished, their memory lives on in the many rabbits who now live there under decidedly more pleasant conditions.
In the years following World War II, the island was developed into a park. As part of the reinventing of the island’s culture, a number of rabbits were released. They were fruitful and multiplied. Since there are no dogs, cats, or other natural land predators on the island, and since hunting rabbits is forbidden, the small band of settlers has blossomed into a population about 1,000 rabbits, swarming over an area of less than 200 acres.
Now known commonly by its nickname Usagi Jima, which translates to Rabbit Island, it has become a popular tourist site for visitors who are eager to get in some solid snuggling. Unlike rabbits almost everywhere else, the ones on Rabbit Island have never developed a fear of humans. Consequently, they will swarm around anyone who presents the appearance of providing a snack for the long-eared pilferers.
The official visitors’ site for Rabbit Island offers many suggestions for things to do during your visit. These include bike riding, exploring the Poison Gas Museum, and exploring the natural beauty of the island and the surrounding vistas. The primary reason people go there, of course, is for the rabbits. That’s why most of the rules for visitors focus on such things as not chasing the rabbits; not feeding them on the roadways, where they might get hurt; not taking rabbits home with you, etc.
Getting to Rabbit Island involves taking a 15-minute ferry ride from Tadanoumi. Once there, you will immediately realize you have entered a world where the rabbit is in charge. Whether they overpower you by their numbers or their adorableness, rabbits clearly reign supreme and have transformed Ōkunoshima Island from a place of poison to a land of wonder.