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A crowd of nearly 14,000 gathered at a park early Saturday to light candles in remembrance of those who died. As incense wafted through the air, the dark, chilly morning was pierced by a moment of silence at exactly 5:46 a.m.

“I lost my sister that day. For Kobe, we can never forget the quake, just as people in Tohoku will never forget 3/11,” said Masahide Tanimura, 42, a former resident who attended the rites in the park with his family.

A separate, more formal, ceremony later in the morning was attended by the Emperor and Empress, and by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who was in office when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake hit and was widely criticized for the slow government response.

“We’ve entered a new stage now that 20 years have passed since the quake. We have to establish a Hyogo for a new age, to overcome the disaster and respond to the challenges of a declining population and the concentration of power in Tokyo,” Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said at the ceremony.

The 20th anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake was marked by silent prayers, thoughts for victims of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and concerns about how to keep memories of the 1995 disaster alive as authorities move to evict the eldest survivors from public housing.

In Hyogo Prefecture, 6,434 people were killed and three remain missing. A total of 43,792 people were injured, more than 100,000 houses and buildings were destroyed and another 540,000 damaged.

But memories of the disaster are fading. Nearly 18 percent of the people in the 12 cities hardest hit, including Kobe, aren’t even 20 years old. Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto said over 40 percent of his residents were either born or moved to Kobe after the quake and thus have no knowledge of it.

“It’s said we’re the last generation to have experienced the earthquake, even though we have no memory of it,” said 20-year-old Kazuaki Ogawa in a statement on behalf of Hyogo residents his age. “However, we did grow up alongside the recovery efforts. Whenever we hear stories from our families and teachers about the situation at the time, we feel their fear and pain. But it’s also true the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake is something that now exists in history textbooks.”

“However, the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami caused us to wonder if Kobe experienced the same situation, and made us think about the dangers of natural disasters,” he added.

One legacy of the quake was the birth of a national volunteer movement for disaster relief. Many residents and those who arrived from other parts of Japan — and from overseas — in the ensuing days to help with rescue efforts, formed NGOs and NPOs that travel around Japan and the world whenever earthquakes, floods or other disasters occur.

Locally, Kobe and Hyogo universities are attracting Japanese and foreign students interested in studying its disaster response policies and volunteerism.

Meanwhile, there are about 36,000 people still living in 273 public housing projects built for those who lost their homes. Just over half are at least 65 years old. Over the past two decades, more than 1,000 who were living alone died.

These public housing units, which are now being rented by the occupants, are supposed to be returned to the local governments that own them by 2020. But pressure is growing on officials to let them stay.

Ido has said figuring out how to take care of those residents and other elderly victims of the quake will be one of Hyogo’s greatest challenges in the years ahead.

The other is achieving full economic recovery.The quake caused about ¥10 trillion in damage in Hyogo, the main reason why its average growth rate since the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s is an anemic 0.1 percent — one of the lowest in the nation.

Small businesses were hit particularly hard. Many fell into bankruptcy or moved to neighboring Osaka, Tokyo or overseas, and there are about 20 percent less firms in the prefecture than there were before the quake hit.

Various schemes introduced after the quake to revive the economy were tried, with mixed results. Hisamoto, the mayor of Kobe, has said the city still needs an appropriate way to attract both tourists and new industries.

As Kobe beef is now world famous, one potential strategy, he said, is to turn the port city into a gourmet capital, creating Japanese and international dishes using local ingredients.

Meanwhile, in a spirit of solidarity, survivors of the March 2011 offshore mega-quake that disrupted or wiped out communities in three of the prefectures in the Tohoku region held their own ceremonies to commemorate the Hanshin quake.

Residents in tsunami-hit Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, joined in praying for those who died in the 1995 quake and its survivors.

“We are far from Kobe but we share their sentiments. We would like to remain connected with each other,” Kenji Endo, a 48-year-old member of a group in charge of a gas-lit “light of hope” display from Kobe, said Saturday.

In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, another tsunami-hit port, about 70 residents and others gathered at a park and lit 1,000 candles.

Information from Kyodo added

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