Kobe Revisited: City rebuilding economic strength

by Eric Johnston

Staff writerKOBE — Three years after an early morning earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale resulted in the loss of more than 6,400 lives and left tens of thousands homeless, Kobe has rebuilt most of its economic infrastructure. But its recovery has not come without criticism over the plight of some of the survivors.As the reconstruction of homes and businesses progresses, those forced to leave the city immediately after the quake are slowly returning. At the beginning of this year, the official population of Kobe stood at 1,426,000, still down by 100,000 compared with before the quake, but up by about 6,000 from this time last year.In the most heavily damaged areas of Kobe, particularly Nada Ward near central Kobe and the mostly blue-collar Nagata Ward on the western side, the population recovery remains slow. While city officials estimate the population at some wards stands above 90 percent of prequake levels, the figure for Nada Ward is 78 percent and 67 percent for Nagata Ward.Many former Nada and Nagata residents remain in temporary shelters or with friends outside the city for financial reasons. There were about 82,000 new homes in Kobe and as of November and an estimated 110,000 homes had been rebuilt, according to city officials, who say housing reconstruction in several areas, including Higashi Nada and Hyogo wards, is now effectively complete.While those who own land or had financial resources to rebuild quickly were able to get back to a normal life, some 25,000 families still remain in temporary housing units. One of the most contentious issues between people still residing in temporary housing and the municipal government has been over the future of those residents.Last September, Hyogo Gov. Toshitami Kaihara announced that public housing construction in the suburbs was proceeding faster than originally expected and thus he wanted to close all temporary housing by the end of next September, even though the dwellings could legally be left standing until March 1999.No doubt an adequate supply of public housing is available. Over 26,000 units have been offered by the city of Kobe, and rental contracts for 76 percent of them have been signed. Including public housing units supplied by the prefecture, the grand total available is 38,600 units.But the occupancy rate is only 38 percent, partially because of a lottery system for housing that many find difficult to understand, but also because going into public housing would mean having to start over again and being surrounded by strangers, something many do not wish to do after living three years in temporary housing.”Many of those in temporary housing are elderly, living alone, or are dependent on the new friends they’ve made for physical and psychological care,” said Ayako Nakajima, a local activist. “They don’t want to be uprooted again and forced to live next to total strangers. “We’ve tried to get the city and the prefecture to allow groups of people to live in the same public housing units, but without much success,” she said.In addition, residents of the temporary housing complain that many of the public housing units are too far away from trusted doctors, nurses and social welfare workers. Kobe Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama also wants the temporary housing units closed. Some 6,000 families still have not received public housing through the lottery system, but Sasayama said earlier this week he wants everyone relocated by the end of August.The rush is a matter of economics. In the aftermath of the quake, Kobe port lost a great deal of business to Osaka, Yokohama, Tokyo and Pusan, South Korea. Kobe’s leaders made economic reconstruction the priority, pouring trillions of yen into civil engineering and business projects in an attempt to regain lost business.