Cost of Kobe memorials irks some critics

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — A dozen years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, debate is growing over how best to remember the disaster and its aftermath in a city where only 70 percent of current residents were here when the temblor struck.

Since the first anniversary of the 1995 earthquake that resulted in the loss of 6,434 lives and left nearly 44,000 people injured, the Hyogo Prefectural Government and Kobe Municipal Government have sponsored annual memorial services for relatives of those who died. For the first few years, attendees at the prefectural government’s lavish events included members of the Imperial family, the prime minister and Cabinet ministers.

Over the past few years, as most residents moved on with their lives, there have been growing calls to cut back on the official ceremonies.

“Most who experienced the quake no longer pay attention to the official memorial ceremonies. It’s just a few survivors and politicians who really want to keep the large-scale, official memorial services going,” said Eiji Watano, a 53-year-old Kobe quake survivor. He said he and his neighbors have all recovered.

Over the past decade, the prefecture has been scaling back its official ceremony and neither the prime minister nor Imperial family members have attended in recent years. Other localities, as well as many nonprofit groups that once held high-profile annual ceremonies, have also greatly scaled them back or stopped them altogether.

But Kobe continues to hold official memorials, including a candlelight vigil that drew nearly 4,000 people early Wednesday. Mayor Tatsuo Yada told reporters last week that Kobe would continue to hold the ceremonies despite the trend toward smaller, quieter events.

“Those who experienced the quake will continue to gather to remember. Kobe lost 4,571 people, out of a total population of 1.5 million. . . . Thirty percent of the current population of Kobe may have no experience of it, but Kobe will never cut back on its memorial ceremonies,” Yada said.

The sharpest critics of Kobe’s official ceremonies are those worried about the city’s budget, particularly in light of the difficulties in financing large-scale projects like Kobe airport. Just two weeks after the quake, Kobe announced it was pushing ahead with plans to build the airport as part of postquake reconstruction.

After a decade of controversy, the airport opened last February, but projections of 3.2 million passengers using the facility annually appear wildly optimistic. Only about 2.2 million people had used the airport as of the end of last year.

The airport was dealt a further blow last month when All Nippon Airways announced it was suspending a daily flight to Niigata and twice-daily flights to Kagoshima. Flights on both routes were usually only 30 percent to 40 percent full, ANA said. At the moment, the airport has flights to a mere seven cities.

As of the end of last year, flights to and from Kobe were about 63 percent full, on average, prompting worries about how the 314 billion yen airport will be paid for and a search for ways to cut back on other city expenses.

The quake memorials are an easy target.

But Kobe and Hyogo officials say the ceremonies are important not only to recall lost loved ones, but for what they can teach the country as a whole.

Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido has repeatedly said the events are also a day for the rest of the country to remember that natural disasters can strike without warning and that it’s important to be prepared. Yada has said Kobe has a special responsibility to educate people about the lessons learned from the quake.