Tent city gone but common bonds remain


KOBE — The idyllic image of a father and son flying a kite in Minami Komae Park bears no resemblance to the scenes visited on this place during the devastating 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Located in Kobe’s Nagata Ward, one of the hardest hit areas, the park became a tent city for over 200 evacuees in the aftermath of the quake.

It is from this park and through their shared hardships that Japanese and Vietnamese survivors developed new relationships based on mutual understanding.

Although many Vietnamese had been living in the ward for years prior to the earthquake, it would take a tragedy to finally unite them with their Japanese neighbors.

The quake, which resulted in the loss of over 6,000 lives and left tens of thousands of people homeless, was the catalyst. It forced many Vietnamese and Japanese to literally live together in the park. Despite many initial conflicts, they forged a friendship and formed an unofficial council to manage the community.

“It was difficult at first, but we got along well in the end,” said Miyoko Nakamura of the council. “While some (Vietnamese) had sharp tongues, they understood me when I spoke to them sincerely.

“Although many of the Vietnamese have moved to different places, I still chat with them when I bump into them on the street,” she added.

Foreign residents account for some 10 percent of the ward’s total population of 87,000. While most are Korean, Vietnamese are the second-largest ethnic group, with their number totaling 463 as of the end of March, according to the ward office.

The tents are now gone and the evacuees have resettled. But the harmony forged in tragedy, overcoming cultural and religious differences, lives on through the Takatori Relief Center.

Set up within the precinct of Takatori Catholic Church to provide support for the survivors, the center has accommodated various volunteer activities since its inception.

Six of these groups remain, including the Kobe Foreign Friendship Center and the Asian Town Promotion Council. They provide various services, especially for foreigners. The multilingual radio station FM Wai Wai is also based at the center.

Their activities have been serving as a magnet for locals, giving them reasons to visit the church and meet people, especially foreigners.

“The church used to be closed to non-Christians, and I didn’t have a chance to go inside. But after the quake, I started going there to do volunteer work, cooking and serving meals for other volunteers,” said Kuniko Takagi, who lives nearby.

“What I learned from the quake experience was that having good relations with others is more important than anything,” said Takagi, who now helps the center with its plans to offer welfare services to local seniors.

Some Japanese from the community are now beginning to understand their foreign neighbors. A group of 10 — eight Japanese and two Vietnamese — visited Vietnam in November for six days.

“I now understand the toughness of the Vietnamese people, those who went through the life-threatening experience of leaving the country as boat people,” said Yasuhiko Hashimoto, 42, who organized the tour.

Watching Vietnamese evacuees grilling meat and shrimp on stoves outside the shelter on the very night of the quake, Hashimoto said, he could not understand how they could dare to cook and eat dinner. Most Japanese, unable to recover from the shock, were sitting helplessly inside shelters.

Despite better relations between some, however, overall discrimination against foreign residents still exists and is not easy to eliminate, according to Ha Thi Thanh Nga, a 38 year-old Vietnamese who works at the Kobe Foreigners’ Friendship Center.

“Although it is true that relations with Japanese improved after the quake, many Vietnamese and other foreign residents still suffer from housing discrimination,” she said. “In some cases, it is worse than before.”

Working at the center on various problems facing foreign residents, she acknowledged culture and lifestyle differences pose obstacles to mutual understanding.

At the same time, she said the Vietnamese must also make greater efforts to live in harmony with Japanese.

“It’s true some Vietnamese play music loudly,” she said. “And they don’t express their opinions well, although I fully understand that a language barrier poses some difficulty, especially with first-generation Vietnamese.”

To get more local people involved in the center’s activities, church members and volunteers plan to transform the relief center — which currently focuses on support for foreign residents — into a community center with a broader scope of activities.

While no blueprint has been drawn, Hashimoto, a key member of the project, said the facility will maintain its existing qualities of freedom and flexibility.

“The basic concept is that the place will contribute to creating a community where various people with different cultural and religious backgrounds can live in harmony,” he said.

Hiroshi Kanda, priest at Takatori Catholic Church, said that one reason the tent residents cooperated so well was that the park provided a forum for conversations.

“We witnessed the creation of a wonderful community in the park. While some people say that it was only the extraordinary circumstances after the quake that made it possible, it gave us hope that we could make it live again under normal conditions,” Kanda said.