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News photo
A clothing boutique in the devastated Sannomiya Center Street shopping arcade in downtown Kobe was temporarily reopened outdoors in this photo –
from mid-February 1995. Most of the
buildings, as well as the arcade roof, have since been rebuilt, and the city’s largest arcade now bustles with shoppers. REIJI YOSHIDA PHOTOS

The worst-hit area was the prefectural capital of Kobe.

Landmark buildings in the downtown area were reduced to rubble, railway lines were paralyzed and gas and water pipes were inoperative for months.

In Kobe alone, at least 4,571 people were killed, 129,600 buildings were flattened and 237,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

People believed Kobe would remain dead for at least 10 years, probably more.

They were wrong.

Photos of certain Kobe landmarks, taken over the past decade, are testimony to the revival of a city and the power of people determined to overcome hardship, although it took several years to rebuild some of the best-known buildings in the downtown area.

The Japan Times tried to locate buildings and streets where photos were taken soon after the temblor, but 10 years of drastic reconstruction and rapid recovery sometimes made it a difficult task.

Only small clues that survived both the earthquake and the years — a small boutique signboard, a traffic signal, a lamppost on a street corner — showed that the older photos had been taken there.

When the first photos were taken less than a month after the quake, no trains were available to reach the city center from Osaka. Trains only went as far as JR Sumiyoshi Station in eastern Kobe, and the rest of the way had to be reached on foot.

Almost all the passengers in the train heading for Sumiyoshi had knapsacks on their backs, full of relief supplies for friends and relatives who survived the 7.3-magnitude quake.

The first and second floors of City Hall had become a makeshift shelter for more than 100 people whose houses were lost or damaged, spending nights there made sleepless by the fear of repeated aftershocks.

Among the hundreds of photos taken every January since, perhaps those of Sannomiya Center Street, the city’s largest shopping arcade street, show the fast but difficult road of reconstruction relatively well.

In photos taken soon after the earthquake, the arcade roof was lost and the walls of the commercial buildings lining the street were ripped up like soft fabric.

The roof was still missing in the photos taken in 1996 and 1997, and visitors to the city’s busiest shopping street could see the sky as they went from store to store. It was in the photo taken in 2000 that the entire arcade roof was shown fully restored.

After 10 years, it has become almost impossible to distinguish the changes brought about by the earthquake from other changes in the city’s ever-transforming landscape, at least through the viewfinder of a camera.

It is now the job of those who can look beneath the surface, such as researchers, writers, residents and administrators, to find hidden scars from the 1995 disaster and pass on the lessons learned to future generations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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