National

Chief of NPO backing Kobe quake victims passes torch after quarter century

JIJI

A 69-year-old man who has dedicated his time since the 1995 Kobe earthquake to visiting and listening to people affected by the disaster is ready to hand his mission over to younger generations.

“The most important thing is to continue connecting,” said Shuichi Maki, head of a nonprofit support organization for the victims who has decided to retire as its leader in March.

Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the first temblor to hit the maximum of 7 on Japan’s seismic intensity scale. The quake killed a total of 6,434 people and injured another 43,792.

Maki, who was then teaching at a night high school, was in Higashinada Ward when the quake rocked the city and nearby areas on Jan. 17. Fortunately, his family and home escaped damage.

He rushed to an elementary school that was a designated evacuation center to see if there was anything he could do. A university student who was volunteering there told him he could contribute greatly by listening to the victims.

After seeing so many people mentally worn out by the disaster, Maki and his friends decided to act. They made a newspaper for survivors to spread information on relief money and other key issues, and explained its contents at the shelter.

Evacuees started to share their concerns with Maki and the other members of his group as they became closer. During their time at the shelter, the members listened to the worries of some 200 people, including those who had lost homes or jobs.

The group dissolved when the last person at the shelter left in September 1995. But in March the following year, the members began anew as reports of people taking their own lives or dying solitary deaths in temporary housing began to grow.

One day, Maki listened to three people for a total of seven hours. He was so exhausted he didn’t even have the energy to ride his bicycle home, he recalled.

There were many times when he considered quitting, but he said he persevered as he wanted to tell the elderly and others living by themselves that they were not alone.

Financial support from across the country also helped Maki carry on with his mission.

The NPO, named Hanshin Awaji Daishinsai Yorozu Sodansitsu (literally Consultation Room for Great Hanshin Earthquake) is now working on a letter-writing project to cheer areas hurt by the March 2011 mega-quake, whose tsunami devastated Tohoku’s coastline, and areas in Kyushu rocked by the deadly Kumamoto quakes.

Behind the project is the group’s hope to create and expand connections, said Maki.

When Maki’s team started visiting the homes of Kobe’s victims, there were about 140 waiting for them. That number has since dwindled to 12, as many have died.

Maki has been trying to visit them about once a month, but it’s been harder to bear their deaths as he himself is growing old.

Men in their 20s will take over Maki’s mission of offering support “to the last person.”

Maki, however, still has something left to do. He plans to make a DVD or book of interviews with 22 victims he has been documenting for five years, to leave their voices to posterity.