National

25 years after Kobe quake, SDF respected and volunteerism still strong

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As Kobe commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that took the lives of more than 6,400 people, the city and region are working to remind younger generations of the past devastation — and the importance of disaster-preparedness — even as they face tough questions about their future.

At Kobe’s Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial/Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution, a museum that opened in 2002, the purpose is to remember what happened that day on Jan. 17, 1995.

From videos and dioramas portraying the widespread devastation just minutes after the quake struck at 5:46 a.m., to reproductions of ravaged streets and personal items left behind by those who perished, the museum is a tour de force.

But perhaps the most striking aspect is that it allows visitors to meet with museum volunteers who survived the quake, and to hear how it unfolded and affected their lives — and their hopes for the area’s future.

“I’d woken up around 5 a.m. the day of the quake, and went outside to pick up my newspaper,” said Shinichi Saito, who was then a Kobe city official.

“I was on my futon, reading the paper when the quake struck at 5:46 a.m. There was a tremendous shaking — for about 12 seconds or so, it was later said. But just before the shaking, there were a couple of flashes of light, like lightning, and then a loud noise that sounded like the boom of a drum.”

Neighborhoods burn in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked the city and its vicinity on Jan. 17, 1995, killing more than 6,400 people. | KYODO
Neighborhoods burn in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked the city and its vicinity on Jan. 17, 1995, killing more than 6,400 people. | KYODO

Saito and his wife were lucky, managing to avoid serious injury despite damage to their home. He made his way to the Higashinada Ward Office and began working on rescue operations and figuring out where to put those who had evacuated and who needed shelter.

He was also tasked with the gruesome responsibility of finding a place to safely keep the bodies of the dead.

The magnitude 7.3 quake, which reached the maximum of 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale, left 6,434 people dead, over 43,000 injured and forced more than 316,000 to evacuate. Nearly a quarter million buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed.

The Hanshin expressway lies on its side after being toppled by the Kobe earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995. | KYODO
The Hanshin expressway lies on its side after being toppled by the Kobe earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995. | KYODO

In the hours immediately afterward, all power was down, telephones and fax machines were all but inoperable, and critical roads and transportation infrastructure had been damaged or destroyed. The unprecedented scale of the disaster overwhelmed Japan’s officialdom, which fumbled for days to organize a quick rescue response.

Stories of Japanese officials demanding that Swiss canine rescue teams first be quarantined while people lay trapped or dying made international headlines while local authorities struggled.

“Only about 20 percent of the trapped people who were rescued were actually rescued by public entities (police, firefighters and the Self-Defense Forces),” a 2010 report on the quake by the city of Kobe noted. “The remaining 80 percent were rescued by citizens who neither had special rescue tools nor had been trained. Police and firefighters not only had limited manpower, but also had to conduct other different operations, including maintenance of security, traffic control, firefighting, and emergency transportation, along with rescue operations.”

One of the enduring legacies of the Kobe disaster was the change in national laws and Japan’s organizational structure that later allowed the Self-Defense Forces to respond to natural disasters more rapidly.

When the quake struck, SDF units in nearby Itami were dispatched only after the governor of Hyogo Prefecture finally secured approval from Tokyo — a process that cost rescuers valuable time.

A Maritime Self-Defense Force ship is anchored in Higashi-Kobe harbor off Kobe on Jan. 19, 1995, after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. | KYODO
A Maritime Self-Defense Force ship is anchored in Higashi-Kobe harbor off Kobe on Jan. 19, 1995, after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. | KYODO

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s government was blasted for its slow response, and the use of SDF units for rescue operations in disasters was reported by the media as politically controversial. But a January 1994 poll by the Cabinet Office had shown that 26.4 percent of respondents had a good image of the SDF, 50.4 percent said they didn’t have a bad image, and only 1.9 percent specifically said they had a bad image. Also, when asked what the main purpose of the SDF was, 48.9 percent said it was to protect the country from external threats. But 23.8 percent said their most important function was to provide aid in times of disaster.

By 2018, after years of SDF dispatches to disaster zones, their presence was considered normal. That year, a similar Cabinet Office survey showed 36.7 percent of respondents clearly had a good image of the SDF, with 53.8 percent describing their image as fairly good.

When the quake hit, the Ground Self-Defense Force units in Himeji also departed for Kobe, over 100 km away. They were delayed by blocked roads and traffic jams, but also by the lack of an effective system for rapidly inserting them into disaster zones. This experience would eventually lead to the establishment of a Cabinet-level information-collection system and new government posts, including that of state minister for disaster management.

Another direct result of the Hanshin quake was the proliferation of individual volunteerism in times of disaster — a now-entrenched trend that was on display last year in the wake of typhoons Faxai and Hagibis.

In the first year after Jan. 17, 1995, nearly 1.4 million volunteers arrived in the Kobe area from elsewhere in Japan and abroad. These efforts would lead to the establishment of countless nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit support groups nationwide and, in 1998, a new law to promote nonprofit activities.

A high school volunteer hands out evacuation maps in front of a train station in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 24, 1995. | KYODO
A high school volunteer hands out evacuation maps in front of a train station in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 24, 1995. | KYODO

One of those groups was The NGO Collaboration Center for Hanshin Earthquake Rehabilitation, which is based near Kobe’s Shinkaichi Station — one of the areas hardest hit by the quake. The center dispatches volunteers to other parts of the country when disaster strikes and works with NGOs and NPOs abroad to send assistance through a separate organization called Citizens towards Overseas Disaster Emergency.

NGO Collaboration Center head Ryota Yorimasa, who was just 6 when the quake hit, said that 1995 was once called the first year of the volunteer era.

“A lot of people in Japan before then associated volunteering with group or organizational volunteering, such as the work done by the Red Cross,” he said. “But we saw a lot of individuals come to Kobe to volunteer … and the Great Hanshin Earthquake changed the perception of what a ‘volunteer’ was.”

Local efforts to encourage more volunteerism continue even today. Last year, the Hyogo Prefectural Government announced it would fund a program to provide up to ¥200,000 to groups of at least five volunteers from Hyogo who want to help in disaster-struck areas in Japan.

To receive funding, applicants must be at least 20, reside in Hyogo and not be part of a group whose purpose is religious, political or commercial, nor connected with organized crime. The money can be used to defray transportation and lodging expenses, though there are upper limits to how much can be spent each day for both. The group can only apply for funding once every fiscal year.

The prefecture announced last week that 50 groups had already made use of the program to augment relief efforts related to Typhoon Hagibis, which damaged much of Honshu in October with torrential rain and deadly floods. At the same time, Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido announced earlier this month that the main entity set up in 1995 to provide restoration funds would be dissolved in fiscal 2021, saying it had served its purpose. Over the past quarter century, nearly ¥370 billion was spent on 116 different projects.

Today, as the Kobe region reflects on the quake, the need for better government disaster-response policies and the era of volunteerism that the disaster prompted, the area is looking toward an uncertain future.

The quake wrought some ¥10 trillion in economic damage and rebuilding took years, if not decades. But while there is little evidence of the damage today, especially in Kobe — which has been completely rebuilt — area officials are worried about how to strengthen the local economy.

Unlike neighboring Osaka and Kyoto, Kobe has benefitted little from the foreign tourism influx of recent years and lacks the kind of competitive infrastructure to attract visitors that other regions have invested in. One growth strategy Hyogo Prefecture is pursuing has long been a dream of Kobe officials: transforming Kobe airport into an international facility. This year, in particular, they say, is a good time to do it.

“Basically, for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the question is whether people from overseas will be arriving at only Haneda, Narita, and Kansai airports. If there is a problem at one of these airports, we could consider discussions on temporary (international) flights to Kobe airport,” Ido said earlier this month.

“Looking at the long-term situation, there’s also some movement at Kansai airport to increase the number of (annual) takeoffs and landings from 230,000 to 300,000,” he added. “If Kansai airport has 300,000 takeoffs and landings, it will become necessary to discuss the number of flights to Kobe airport as well as its internationalization.”

A display at the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial/Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution shows what it was like on the day the earthquake struck Kobe and its vicinity on Jan. 17, 1995. | ERIC JOHNSTON
A display at the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial/Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution shows what it was like on the day the earthquake struck Kobe and its vicinity on Jan. 17, 1995. | ERIC JOHNSTON

This kind of talk in Kobe is not new, but Japan’s tourism boom has greatly increased its residents’ desire to have their own international airport and lure more visitors. At the quake memorial museum, one video about Kobe’s reconstruction ends with the narrator voicing hopes that more people will visit. But that begs a more fundamental question that, 25 years after the killer quake, Kobe residents continue to ask.

“The port of Kobe appears, when you look at it, to have recovered from the quake,” said Saito, the former city official. “But the question is, what next? This is a different question from how to reconstruct.”