At age 79, Yoshiko Negita’s mind is alert and her memory is laser-sharp. There is, too, a sense of urgency in her voice as this resident of Awaji Island in the Seto Inland Sea speaks to visitors at its Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park. There, preserved at an experiential museum, is an exposed section of the Nojima fault, whose sudden, violent movement caused the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit the area in January 1995 and claimed more than 6,000 lives.

“Do you live in a wooden structure, or a concrete one?” Negita, wielding a pointing stick, asked a family with two school-age children last week as they entered a section of the museum that shows how to make homes quake-safe. “Let’s start from the entrance area. Is your shoe closet fixed to the wall? It’d better be.”

Negita, whose family are custodians of a Buddhist temple on this island of some 140,000 people, is one of the museum’s 20 registered kataribe (firsthand storytellers) of the 1995 quake, which affected Kobe and other southern parts of Hyogo Prefecture, including Awaji Island. Negita herself was lucky to have been rescued by local firefighters after being trapped in the rubble of a shattered temple building for “3 hours and 50 minutes,” she says.

“The 280-year-old main hall of the temple — where I was sleeping — was blown to pieces in 15 seconds,” Negita recalled at the museum’s Memorial House, a two-story concrete building that was formerly an islander’s home that withstood the quake, but is now an exhibit demonstrating how well-built houses can survive even if they are sited only a few meters from a fault line.

“It was so quick that I didn’t know what happened,” Negita continued. “The temple building had more space between its wooden columns than regular houses, and I happened to be caught between ones that had collapsed.

“I heard the sirens blaring outside, and I heard firefighters say, ‘All the people we have pulled out so far from the five houses on this block have been dead, so anyone here will be dead, too.’ I raised my voice, but whatever I said couldn’t be heard. And every time I tried to speak, I tasted chunks of dust in my mouth.”

Now, ever since the March 11 Tohoku-Kanto quake and tsunami, Negita says she has been glued to the television, thus turning herself into a semi-expert on the nitty-gritty of the disaster.

“Despite the nearly 80 years I have lived, the Great Hanshin Earthquake has had the biggest impact on my view on life,” she said. “I heard so many stories of people surviving or not surviving at the whim of fate,” she said, noting that she, too, could easily have been burned to death.

When the magnitude 7.3 quake hit at 5:46 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1995, the temple monks were preparing for a ritual that starts daily at 6 a.m., and they were within minutes of entering the main building with candles in their hands. However, none of them sustained any injuries, as the building they were in withstood the temblor.

“I don’t believe in fatalism, but I can’t help but think about fate,” Negita said.

The talks by Negita and other kataribe — which also cover quake-safety tips — are a key feature of this museum that has attracted 7.9 million visitors since it opened in 1998. Now, in the wake of the March 11 disasters in Tohoku, it will be surprising if visitor numbers don’t rise for some time to come as people’s awareness of the threat of natural disasters is heightened.

In the past few weeks, indeed, the museum has received more than 10 inquiries a day from schoolteachers wanting to arrange group tours to the facility — with requests to listen to kataribe — said museum official, Keiji Ikemoto. He noted that many schools, especially from the Chubu region of central Honshu, have canceled their trips to Tokyo following the March 11 quake and subsequent radiation leaks, and are considering bringing their students to Awaji Island instead during the May-June school-trip season.

On top of kataribe and a 140-meter-long section of the fault that is now roofed over to maintain its fearfully jagged, stepped and separated sides, the museum has an earthquake simulation room in which visitors can experience the same degree of shaking as occurred during the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and for exactly the same length of time — 40 seconds.

Experiencing the jolt in the room, set up like a living room with a sofa and chairs, makes you realize that even a glass-covered wall clock or a plant in a vase could be lethal if they fell or got knocked over.

For many residents of Awaji Island, the museum is not a memorial of the past — but a constant reminder that they must stay vigilant for the next “big one.”

“Objects not only move, but can actually fly toward you,” said Kayomi Kami, 33, an Awaji native who experienced the 1995 quake when she was a high school student. Now an attendant at the quake-simulation room, Kami says the islanders are bracing for the next Nankai earthquake, whose epicenter is off the coast of nearby Wakayama Prefecture, and which occurs every 100 to 150 years.

Seismologists put the chance of a magnitude 8.4 quake striking western Japan along the Pacific coast — which could result in a massive tsunami hitting the island — at 50 percent by 2034 and 80 percent by 2054.

“My house was spared significant damage, but our kitchen was a big mess,” Kami said. “The microwave also flew, and some of our doors wouldn’t open after the quake distorted their frames. And since seeing that tsunami in Tohoku, I’ve been thinking, ‘This could happen here at any time.’ “

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.