Shaken but not stirred

Lessons not learned from the Hanshin quake

by Kenzo Moriguchi

KOBE — More than 6,400 people died, 250,000 buildings collapsed and fire razed 7,000 homes over 64 hectares of land. But, according to Yoshiteru Murosaki, a professor at Kobe University’s Research Center for Urban Safety and Security, we have yet to learn any lessons from the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Nearly 90 percent of the quake victims died under the rubble, and Murosaki believes it was poor city planning and shoddy construction that raised the death toll so high.

After studying 400,000 structures in the region following the quake on Jan. 17, 1995, he has concluded that no fundamental changes have been made to prevent an equal number of casualties and deaths occuring in a similar emergency.

“Looking back, it was the construction of buildings and houses that led to so many deaths,” says Murosaki. “And the way houses have been built and cities planned since indicate that we have learned nothing.”

Because the Hanshin region was believed to be free of the danger of earthquakes, builders and homeowners took no precautions against them. Many houses were built on unstable land, and construction methods introduced after the 1950s did not leave room for sway. Slack supervision by local administrations only increased the likelihood of shoddy, unstable buildings being erected.

Murosaki recalls cases that went to court after the concrete in some collapsed buildings was found to have been mixed with wood. And he notes unconfirmed cases of unethical building practices said to have led to collapses during the quake, such as claims that high-salt-content beach sand was often used to mix concrete, leading to the corrosion of steel reinforcements.

“There are rules to be followed and laws to be observed. But these were not and are not respected for the sake of convenience and money,” Murosaki says. “There are many buildings in the Hanshin region even now that would collapse if a strong quake hit.”

The lesson of safe city planning has even been lost on the region’s residents, Murosaki laments. Many people who lost their home to fire rebuilt their houses exactly where they stood before the disaster, re-creating the crowded neighborhoods of wooden homes through which the fires so quickly spread.

“This shows that the local administration and residents do not place a priority on the creation of a safe community,” Murosaki says. “It seems that the Japanese would risk their lives in the future for an easy life today.”

But despite his harsh words, Murosaki blames the lack of fundamental change on the absence of a definitive explanation of the factors contributing to the 1995 disaster. The rumors of low-grade concrete, he notes, have never been confirmed because “damaged concrete was very quickly taken away by construction companies” to avoid analysis. No one, he explains — be they builders, the administration or the residents themselves — wants to be held responsible.

To help clarify the situation, to learn lessons without pointing the finger of blame, in 1998 Murosaki started a 10-year project to uncover how each victim, all 6,432 of them, perished.

“As a local researcher, this is my task. What I am trying to do is to listen to the bereaved family members and to leave a record of why and how the victims died,” he says. “I do not analyze the collected data nor are students who work with me allowed to write a thesis on this research; this research is not for academic purposes but for the prevention of future disasters.”

In his first three years of research, only 300 relatives of victims have been interviewed to date, partly due to a lack of finances. But Murosaki will continue as long as he can.

“No one, including the local government, will take on the job, so I believe I must,” he says. “If the facts of the disaster are recorded, they will be of some help to people in the future.”