Kobe archivist stops memories of ’95 quake fading

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo News

KOBE — Forgetting the massive earthquake 15 years ago that devastated Kobe and its vicinity would be hard for those who lived through it, but keeping memories alive and sharing them with others can be equally difficult.

The city appears to have returned to normal, with collapsed buildings reconstructed and traces of the magnitude-7.3 quake that struck Jan. 17, 1995, killing more than 6,000 people, now hard to find. However, for Kazuko Sasaki, the years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake have been a fight to ensure it is not forgotten.

The 57-year-old has collected all kinds of records related to the quake, such as fliers on aid given out at emergency shelters and research papers on damage to buildings. She began by visiting some 1,000 former emergency shelters and temporary homes as a researcher and has continued to be involved in such work with several organizations, including Kobe University.

“We needed documents that give us a big picture of what happened and collecting just books was not enough,” Sasaki said in an interview.

While she hopes these materials, often handwritten as modern communication means were disrupted, would help people research the quake, some records have already been discarded, making her realize how quickly things get lost.

The documents she has gathered are now kept at a number of libraries and archives set up within Kobe, the center of the disaster. The archives for residents of the city, founded by a group of locals to which Sasaki belongs, hold thousands of materials, though no one knows the exact figure.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Disaster Materials Collection at Kobe University Library holds at least 45,000 documents provided by residents. The city’s Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution also holds some 32,000 documents and 168,000 items contributed by residents. Their records include many that Sasaki has collected.

The records have been used in disaster management in other countries that have experienced catastrophic earthquakes, such as Taiwan, and also helped the city plan aid allocation when another big earthquake hit Niigata Prefecture in 2004. University students and researchers use them to study the disaster from various viewpoints in writing their theses.

Although earthquake records are often regarded from the standpoint of natural science and disaster management, Sasaki said that use of such documents “is not restricted to alleviating future disasters,” explaining they can be used simply as commemorative materials or to influence new movements in literature or sociological studies.

“People may have experienced the quake at the same time but their experiences are unique, and how they perceive them is different,” she said. “Each person’s search for answers to their own questions may help us create a better society. That’s the kind of thing I want to provide.”

Sasaki herself experienced the earthquake at her home in the city of Ashiya, located on the edge of Hyogo Prefecture, which was also severely damaged as roofs caved in and a highway running through her neighborhood toppled over.

“If I hadn’t experienced the quake, I would probably be leading a different life now,” said Sasaki, who was working with war records at the time and thinking of leaving her job. “The earthquake turned me around.”

Calling record keeping her life’s work, Sasaki’s efforts, now as a coordinator, continue.

“Some issues (linked to the disaster) will only surface after years, and new documents will come up then,” she said, referring to a group of people who were left handicapped due to injuries caused by the quake but went unrecorded until late last year.

The Kobe Municipal Government began a study last October targeting some 70,000 people with certain handicaps and found that at least 183 of them became disabled as a result of the quake. Hyogo Prefecture announced in December that it will also conduct a study in fiscal 2010 of people disabled in the disaster.

In addition, the records of people who were evacuated outside of Hyogo Prefecture have only recently received attention.

Such records will eventually end up in the archives, a place open to everyone, Sasaki said.

“My work is to pass the records down to the next generation. It gives me hope that I can do something that may help somebody someday,” she said.