National

Special course on disaster prevention spurs Kobe survivor's mission to teach others

JIJI

Early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, Kurumi Kishimoto was awakened abruptly by “earth-rumbling sounds” like something she had never experienced. Her family’s seventh-floor apartment in Kobe’s Hyogo Ward was shaken violently, with dishes falling from the shelves. As dawn was breaking, Kishimoto was “terrified” to see collapsed power poles and fires spreading.

Kishimoto, now 32, was a second-grader at a local elementary school when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck. Her apartment lost power and gas, so she temporarily stayed at a relative’s home in the city’s Nishi Ward. Her school was closed for about a month after the disaster, which killed more than 6,400 people in Kobe and nearby areas and injured more than 43,000 others. It was the first quake that hit 7 — the highest level — on the Japanese seismic intensity scale used by the Meteorological Agency.

Today, thanks to her experience and a high school class on disaster prevention, Kishimoto has made it a mission to help others learn about disasters and prevention.

In 2002, Kishimoto was one of the first students to take a special course on disaster prevention at Hyogo Prefectural Maiko High School in the city’s Tarumi Ward. The course, designed to preserve lessons learned from the catastrophic quake, was the first of its kind in the nation.

Until she reached high school, Kishimoto did not recognize her disaster experience as special because all of her friends had suffered from the earthquake.

Kishimoto chose to take the disaster prevention course at the high school “just out of curiosity.” Nevertheless, she made friends with people who had not been affected by the quake and realized that her experience of going through such an extraordinary disaster should be widely shared.

The course allowed her to hear lectures by disaster management experts and officials from related nonprofit organizations.

She also visited Nepal to learn about disaster prevention efforts there. In Nepal, a major quake in August 1988 killed hundreds of people. The country was hit by a powerful temblor in April 2015 and another in the following month, with the total death toll from the twin quakes reaching about 9,000.

Kishimoto advanced to Kobe Gakuin University, where she majored in disaster prevention studies. Meanwhile, she worked as a volunteer in disaster areas in Japan and abroad.

In 2014, she started working at the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution, based in Kobe’s Chuo Ward. The institution has a mission to pass on lessons from the 1995 earthquake to future generations.

Currently, Kishimoto works as a teaching assistant at Kobe Gakuin University’s Department of Social Studies of Disaster Management.

She has taken students from the university to Wakayama Prefecture, where preparations are underway for a huge earthquake predicted to occur in the Nankai Trough in the Pacific off the coasts of central, western and southwestern prefectures including Wakayama.

She has also participated in a disaster prevention event in Sendai and interacted with local high school students. Miyagi is one of the three prefectures hit hardest by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In December 2019, Kishimoto gave a lecture at a junior high school in Kobe, speaking about her experience of the 1995 earthquake, including fears she felt at the time and the death of a friend at her elementary school.

“It’s painful to lose someone or something you love,” Kishimoto said. “Thinking about what you can do to protect them will lead to disaster prevention.”

“I’m encouraged to hear those who were born after the earthquake saying they want to know more about the situation at the time,” she said.

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