KOBE — This city marked the sixth anniversary of the earthquake that resulted in the loss of 6,432 lives with prayers and remembrance services Wednesday, but also with a sense that the temblor is fading into history and that the recovery is almost complete.
At a ceremony in Chuo Ward, Hyogo Gov. Toshitami Kaihara said, “I believe that handing down what we have learned from the aftermath of the great quake to future generations and rebuilding a beautiful Kobe populated by people with hearts of gold is the only way to honor those who died.”
In a separate gathering at an amusement park in the ward, about 2,000 people, including survivors of the quake, and Kobe Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama lit 6,432 candles and offered silent prayers for the victims at 5:46 a.m., the time the quake struck.
Unlike past years, when reminders of the devastation were visible in the form of temporary shelters, this year’s events took place a year after the last of the shelters, which accommodated nearly 48,000 people in 1995, closed down.
In another break with the past, the memorial service by the prefectural government was moved outside the local government building and held in clear but cold weather near Kobe harbor, next to the site of the 6 billion yen Hanshin Awaji Earthquake Memorial Center, which will open next year.
The atmosphere was more like a festive flea market than a solemn vigil. Volunteer groups manned tents selling baked goods to raise money for earthquake survivors in other parts of the world, including El Salvador, while a band played in a corner.
Assembled dignitaries, including Princess Nori, joined a crowd of several thousand at the event. The princess arrived at the ceremony around noon after completing a 2-km walk from Oji Park through eastern Kobe. Along the walk, she met quake survivors and volunteers.
Others conducted a memorial 10-km walk between Ashiya and Kobe along an evacuation and transportation route.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was not present for the the ceremonies, becoming the first prime minister not to attend any of the anniversary events and disappointing some citizens.
“(The late Prime Minister Keizo) Obuchi attended last year’s ceremony. I don’t see why Mori couldn’t make it. He’s being rude to the families of the victims,” said Kiyoshi Nara, a 78-year-old Kobe resident.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Mori is busy as he has just returned from Africa and Europe and needs to prepare for the Jan. 31 opening of the regular Diet session. The prime minister must also prepare to take part in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which will be held later this month, Fukuda added.
Mori said Wednesday that he thought it better for Bunmei Ibuki, minister in charge of disaster prevention and crisis management, to attend in his place.
The prime minister expressed his condolences in Tokyo, telling reporters that he “realized anew” how disastrous the quake was as he watched TV programs on the morning of the anniversary.
“I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the victims,” Mori said at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.
Mori also promised government support to help complete the reconstruction of the Kobe area.
Many Kobe residents, however, when asked about the significance of this year’s ceremonies, said it didn’t matter if public figures were present.
“Kobe has been rebuilt and most people have gotten on with their lives. The quake is history. It’s not necessary to continue these huge events every year,” said Yoko Ishii, a 45-year-old office worker who lives in western Kobe.
Official statistics support this statement. Various public and private surveys agree that Kobe is more than 99 percent recovered from the quake.
The population in quake-affected cities and towns within Hyogo Prefecture has returned to about 3.6 million people, just under the pre-quake population. All temporary shelters have been closed and nearly 99 percent of the buildings in Kobe destroyed by the quake had been rebuilt as of Jan. 1, Kobe officials said.
But while infrastructure has recovered, some major social problems remain. A main concern are the people now living alone in public housing built for quake survivors.
Last year, Kobe officials announced that since survivors began moving into public housing in 1998, 79 people living alone have died. Although some were elderly, many were in their 40s and 50s. About 50,000 families are living in public housing in and around the Kobe area.
Kobe officials are also concerned about reviving the local economy. The city currently has more than 5 trillion yen in total bonds outstanding. Many of these were issued after the quake to pay for rebuilding, but some were spent on new public works projects that are now failing.
For example, Port Island Phase II, a municipal project that officials hoped would bring new business to the region, has failed to attract investors because of its inconvenient location and the sluggish economy.
Despite the city’s dire financial situation, officials are also pushing forward with the construction of Kobe airport, scheduled to open in 2005 on reclaimed land in Kobe harbor.
The government and businesses here see the airport as the final project in the process of rebuilding Kobe, but the project faces heavy criticism from local citizens, business leaders outside Kobe, and even the central government. Many doubt the airport will be viable because the Itami domestic airport and Kansai International Airport, both about 45 minutes from Kobe, are currently underutilized.
Kobe airport is expected to cost at least 314 billion yen, of which 210 billion yen in finance will come from local bonds.
Displaced are lonely
Seventy-one of 100 relocated survivors of the earthquake that devastated Kobe on Jan. 17, 1995, feel lonely in their new neighborhoods, according to a Kyodo News survey.
Of the 100 respondents who moved, 28 said they do not know their new neighbors, while 43 said ties with neighbors are not as close as before the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Wednesday marked the sixth anniversary of the magnitude 7.2 temblor, which resulted in the loss of more than 6,400 lives in the city and surrounding areas.
Only 11 said they have adapted to their new areas and got to know locals, according to the poll, which was conducted last month. Out of 100 households that did not relocate, 43 believe neighborhood ties are weaker.
Fifty-three of the respondents said they have been able to fully or partly resume their lives since the quake, an increase from the 42 in the 1999 poll.
Kyodo in December interviewed 200 randomly selected households that survived the quake in Kobe, the hardest-hit area.