KOBE – Kobe and the surrounding area on Friday morning marked a quarter century since the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the region, killing 6,434 people in what was then Japan’s worst postwar natural disaster.
Survivors, their family members — including many who were born long after the Jan. 17, 1995, quake — and visitors gathered at a park in central Kobe to observe a moment of silence at 5:46 a.m., when the magnitude 7.3 quake struck.
That poignant moment was followed by the playing of “Hana wa Saku” (“Flowers Will Bloom”), a song of support for victims of the quake, by a solo trumpeter while old and young alike lit candles, offered prayers, shed a few silent tears and remembered the day that changed their lives forever.
Yoshihiro Ueno, the head of the group that organized Friday morning’s candlelight memorial, recalled for those assembled his own experience in losing his mother, who was on the first floor of the family home when the quake struck and died when it collapsed. He’d been living elsewhere at the time but was due to make a trip to Kobe.
“I’d called my mother in Kobe the night before the quake and said I’d be returning at the end of January. She had been sleeping on the first floor due to a hip fracture. I said, ‘Why not sleep on the second floor?’ She said my father had a cold and she didn’t want to catch it,” he said.
Many Kobe residents went on to spend months, and in some cases, years, rebuilding their homes and neighborhoods.
“I was lucky. My family managed to escape with only a few minor bruises, and our home wasn’t badly damaged. But a couple of my coworkers lost their homes and recovery took a long time,” said Noriko Kitamura, 48, who now lives in Osaka.
With the quake now 25 years in the past, Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture have recovered. At the same time, there are concerns that it’s fading from memory and that its lessons will be forgotten by the generations that never experienced it.
Statistics provided by the Hyogo Prefectural Government show that for 12 cities, including Kobe, damaged by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the total population increased from 3.45 million in 1995 to 3.64 million as of the end of last year.
Just over 22 percent of residents in these cities were not yet born when the temblor struck.
“As the number of Kobe residents who did not experience the quake increase, how to pass along the lessons of it to the next generation is something we continue to work on,” Kobe Mayor Kizo Hisamoto said Friday morning.
One way the city is attempting to do that is to focus on the present state of disaster preparedness in Japan and pass along what it learned in 1995 to other parts of the country, offering assistance and advice when it can.
“Last year, various parts of Japan saw flood and mudslide damage due to large-scale typhoons, which led to widespread blackouts and water supplies being cut off. In the near future, it’s predicted an earthquake in the Nankai Trough area (off the Pacific coast) could strike. We’ll strive to make Kobe even more recognizable by continuing to be a city that contributes to the disaster prevention, safety, and health fields of other cities and regions,” Hisamoto said.