KOBE — A decade after the massive Kobe earthquake, there remains little visible trace of the damage to this port city.

Modern office buildings and houses dot the commercial and residential districts that were destroyed by the 7.3 magnitude temblor and it’s all but impossible for first-time visitors to imagine the pile of rubble that Kobe became on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995.

The quake resulted in the loss of 6,433 lives, seriously injured more than 10,000 and left nearly 460,000 people homeless at one point.

But underneath the glittering exterior and official pronouncements that all is well and back to normal, many in Kobe say the city and the region face a rough future; many survivors of the quake are still in need of social welfare services at a time when the city’s finances are all but bankrupt.

Tourists from across Japan flock to Kobe’s Nanking-machi district to sample a variety of Chinese foods. The district was one of the first to get up and running, with restaurant owners serving yakitori and ramen outside their destroyed buildings less than 12 hours after the quake.

Today, many of the merchants prefer to look ahead.

“We remember the quake,” said Yukiko Sato, who works at a Chinese grocery store. “But you have to get on with your life. I think most of us who were here at the time have either recovered or packed up and moved on.”

Official statistics support her view.

A survey released by the Hyogo Prefectural Government late last year showed that 80 percent of 1,203 respondents in the prefecture’s 14 municipalities hit by the earthquake said they no longer felt they were victims of the disaster.

A Kobe city survey showed that as of the end of 2003, 76 percent of local businesses felt their sales had not recovered to prequake levels. But only 4 percent of them blamed the quake for their problems.

The rest cited broader macroeconomic reasons, including the prolonged economic slump of the 1990s and the flight of capital and personnel to China.

Perhaps more surprising were the findings of yet another city survey that showed that 25 percent of Kobe residents in 2004 had no direct experience with the 1995 quake, as they had either been living somewhere else or had not been born.

Even in the hardest-hit areas of Kobe, memories of the quake are fading.

In the working-class Nagata district, thousands of small wooden buildings around JR Shin-Nagata Station collapsed and went up in flames, prompting several local media organizations to compare the destruction with that of the last days of World War II.

Today, in place of tightly packed rows of shops and small factories, there are 20-story luxury apartment blocks, trendy Italian, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, and neon-lit shopping centers.

Rents, which prior to the quake were extremely cheap, are now on a par with the more exclusive residential areas to the east of Sannomiya.

This is the problem, and the first clue that all that glitters in postquake Kobe is not gold. For unlike the crowded Sannomiya and Motomachi districts, there are very few people around.

“The new buildings put up after the quake were huge, and the small mom-and-pop stores were told that if they wanted to remain in the same location, they would have to relocate to the second — or even third — floor of the new building, above some fast-food restaurant or trendy shop, and pay more rent than they had paid before the quake,” said Manabu Motoyama, who lives in the district.

“But because many Nagata residents had moved out, there weren’t enough customers to keep most small shops in business, and many went bankrupt and left,” he said.

Kenjo Tojo, who heads a volunteer group that looks after the elderly and is an active opponent of the Kobe airport project, said the fundamental problem the city faces 10 years after the quake is providing social services and encouraging a sense of community at a time of dire financial straits.

“Kobe is all but bankrupt, with more than 3 trillion yen in debts,” Tojo said.

The city’s finances suffered severely under the heavy burden of postquake reconstruction, as well as declining revenue due to the economic slump. But Tojo said the fundamental financial and management problems predate the quake.

“The city rushed ahead with ill-considered projects like the Kobe airport and second-phase construction of Port Island after the quake, even as citizens and many outside experts elsewhere in the Kansai region and Tokyo warned that such projects were a waste,” he said.

Opponents say that the result of such policies is that while on the outside Kobe looks good, there are still problems with the social infrastructure.

Care for the elderly is one example. Seniors who live alone and lost their families in the quake were forced to move out of their community and into public housing.

Human rights groups in Japan and abroad have long expressed concern about the condition of Kobe’s elderly quake survivors, many of whom spent years living alone in temporary housing before moving to single-room apartments run by the prefecture or city, with little consultation about where they wanted to live.

Requests that communities formed in temporary housing units be relocated to the same apartment complex, or at least the same general area, were often turned down.

Many of the elderly and those helping them warned the breakup of such communities would lead to depression and suicide.

Only last week, the city admitted there was a problem when it announced that a record 428 people living alone had died in 2004, up from 359 in 2003.

Twenty percent had been dead at least a week before their bodies were discovered, and a little more than 10 percent had committed suicide.

“The number of elderly quake survivors living alone has increased over the past few years, and is likely to increase further in the coming years, especially if social services are cut further because of Kobe’s untenable debt load,” said Tomio Awahara, a city assembly member from the New Socialist Party.

One positive to emerge from the quake was the massive volunteer effort.

Numerous nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations sprang up to provide assistance, particularly for the elderly, and the quake was said to have marked a new era of volunteerism in Japan.

There are no official statistics regarding the number of volunteer groups, NGOs and similar groups that were formed after the quake and remain active.

Tojo and other volunteers in Kobe say the number has declined. The past few years have seen “volunteerism burnout” locally, even as many continue to actively participate outside Kobe, they say.

“I think there is a sense among many in Kobe who joined volunteer groups after the quake that they’ve done all they can for Kobe,” Tojo said.

“However, as in the case of the Niigata earthquake or Typhoon Tokage, which swept through western Japan (in October), or even past earthquakes in Turkey and Iran, many people from Kobe are still willing to help out short term in the aftermath of natural disasters,” he said.

It’s fine for those who went through the Kobe quake to help others, but not when those efforts are directed outside the city to the detriment of Kobe, long-term volunteers such as Tojo and others say.

“Doesn’t charity begin at home?” Tojo asked. “There is still much work to be done in Kobe, and in one sense it’s a shame that so many people in Kobe who are so eager to travel around the country or the world to help others have given up on problems in their own backyard.”

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.