The Kobe quake, 20 years on

The Great Hanshin Earthquake, which devastated Kobe and its vicinity in the dawn hours of Jan. 17, 1995, and took the lives of 6,434 people, may seem like a distant memory today for many.

Babies born around the time of the disaster are turning 20 and attended coming-of-age ceremonies held this week, testifying to the passing of a whole generation since the event. But we still have much to learn from the experience of the first mega-quake to hit a large metropolitan area in postwar Japan.

The magnitude 7.3 quake, which hit at 5:46 a.m., shattered the safety myth of urban life in modern-day Japan — as symbolized by the collapse of elevated expressways and a large numbers of buildings — and exposed how defenseless we really in the face of natural disasters.

Roughly 80 percent of the victims were crushed to death by collapsed houses and fallen furniture. Casualties were concentrated in neighborhoods crowded with old wooden houses lining narrow lanes. There, fires triggered by the quake obliterated whole communities.

Beefing up the quake resistance of old buildings and houses was highlighted as a major challenge for this quake-prone nation. Tokyo — where the possibility of a mega-quake that directly hits the metropolitan area has long been forecast — also has a large concentration of wooden houses.

Since then, efforts to make residences and public buildings quake- and fireproof have been made, but progress is insufficient. According to the land and infrastructure ministry, 79 percent of houses across the country on average have been made quake-proof, but there still reportedly remain areas that have large numbers of houses built before anti-quake building standards were introduced in 1981.

Subsidies have been introduced to encourage homeowners to make their homes quake-proof, but public awareness of the need to make such renovations is said to be low.

The Kobe quake also shed light on the difficulty in rebuilding local communities devastated by the disaster and caring for elderly survivors who lost their connections to relatives and neighbors.

Looking back on the two decades since the earthquake, Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto says the city’s reconstruction from the disaster was fairly quick, and it regained its pre-quake population level by 2004.

All of the people who had to take shelter in temporary housing units after losing their homes in the quake were able to leave them within five years of the disaster.

At the individual and community level, however, life was no longer the same for many of the survivors. Attention focused on the “solitary death” of large numbers of elderly survivors from illnesses or accidents while living alone in temporary housing units or public apartments built for people left homeless in the quake.

More than 1,000 survivors are believed to have died in such circumstances since the quake.

The health impairment and deaths of disaster survivors were also highlighted in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Thousands of people have died due to the stress caused by the conditions of life in evacuation facilities and temporary houses. It is characterized by separation from people they knew in the communities devastated by the tsunami or rendered inhabitable by the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Appropriate care for disaster survivors remains a challenge.

According to Kobe’s mayor, 44 percent of the city’s population and 46 percent of municipal government workers belong to a generation that has no firsthand experience with the 1995 quake. He rightly emphasizes the importance of passing on the experience and the lessons gained from the disaster to future generations.

Such memories and knowledge indeed need to be kept alive and shared.