National | View from Osaka

Reflections on the Kobe quake two decades on

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

This year, thousands of Japanese around the country celebrated Coming-of-Age Day. In Kobe, however, the occasion was especially poignant, as those who will turn 20 this year were just days old or, most likely, born after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of Jan. 17, 1995. The first generation of adults who never experienced the event firsthand has officially arrived.

For those of us who lived through the quake, it remains one of the defining moments of our lives. The experience changed the way we saw Kobe, the Kansai region, and Japan itself. Like the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, it demolished official lies that had become articles of faith.

Two of these fallacies were: Japanese construction is quake-proof, and the central government will assist in a timely manner if disaster strikes. Both beliefs crumbled quicker than the Hanshin Expressway. In particular, Tokyo bureaucrats and politicians who could not respond quickly, and the 1,001 anecdotes of asinine behavior when they did, in Kobe and Kansai created deep resentments and a skepticism — even cynicism — of government that still lingers.

However, the Kobe quake also awoke a spirit of volunteerism that continues today. Whatever the logistical and bureaucratic problems of responding to 3/11, without the experience of the Kobe quake, things would have been far worse. Knowledge gained and friendships forged in the rubble of Kobe in 1995 endured, expanded and became more organized and efficient as volunteer networks became more experienced.

A generation of young and old volunteers not only went elsewhere in Japan but also overseas to lend their assistance. Bureaucrats who once looked upon volunteer types as nosy outsiders began to work with them. Of all the changes these past 20 years, there is nothing Japan can — and should be — more proud of than the generation of people who first volunteered in Kobe and continue to rush out to help the rest of the nation and the world when disaster strikes.

The quake also led to some fundamental changes. The biggest was political: The central government set up a more effective disaster response apparatus and a chain of command, especially with regards to dispatching the Self-Defense Forces, that would make it easier for politicians from the prime minister on down to react more quickly to natural disasters. Construction codes were, of course, strengthened.

One unintended result was technological, however. Readers of a certain age recall that, in the mid-1990s, cellphones and PHS “handy phones” were around. The latter tended to cut you off in mid-conversation when you passed under a bridge, went into a train station, or found yourself in the middle of a thick concrete building. But they were cheap.

Before the Kobe quake, at least in Kansai, cellphones were not really in widespread use. A few weeks later, it seemed they were everywhere and the days of PHS were numbered. Today, except for a few coffee shops catering to an older crowd that have ancient signs asking customers to turn off their PHS phones, the technology is all but forgotten.

Yet despite the physical recovery, Kobe has struggled to retain a distinct political and cultural identify in a region ever-more dominated by neighboring Osaka and especially Kyoto. While vestiges of its former role as the region’s international hub remain, Kobe is, as many resident Westerners will happily inform visitors, “a nice place to live.”

Nothing wrong with that. But too often the rest of the comment reads: ” … if you have to commute to Osaka.” Twenty years on, Kobe has many reasons to celebrate its recovery, even if, sadly, its role within Kansai is not what it used to be.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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