OSAKA – On the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, I was jolted awake in my Kyoto apartment by the largest earthquake I’d ever experienced. The glass windows shook violently, but thankfully didn’t break.
Before going back to bed, I turned on the TV I’d pulled out of the trash (this was before recycle centers were common, and many a foreign resident saved oodles of cash by hauling away used, or not-so-used, chairs, sofas, tables, stereos, and TVs put out by the curb). The picture was fuzzy (it did come from the trash). But it was clear a major quake, which would later be dubbed the Great Hanshin Earthquake, had struck the Kobe area.
I was working for a rival newspaper at the time and did what any reporter would do: I took off for Kobe. That was easier said than done. Trains between Kyoto and Osaka (where you had to transfer to get to Kobe) were spotty. I finally made it to just east of central Kobe that evening, walking the last few kilometers.
The scenes were like something out of Ludwig Meidner’s apocalyptic landscape paintings. Rubble everywhere. Fires burning out of control. People camped out in front of their devastated homes. But amid the shock, confusion and sadness, there was a determination to move quickly to save those trapped in the rubble and help survivors. And not just among the quake victims.
Nobody in the Kobe area during that time will ever forget those from all corners of the country and the world who poured in and volunteered to do what they could. Some stayed only a few days. Others, much longer. All were needed, and 1995 would later be dubbed the first year of the “Volunteer Era.”
Of course, these efforts didn’t always go smoothly. Stories of Swiss rescue dogs delayed at the airport because of quarantine issues became legend. Meanwhile, the Kobe Municipal Government was embarrassed when it was discovered that the nation’s largest yakuza gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi, had caught the volunteer spirit and was doling out food and supplies to local residents. But the volunteer efforts were appreciated because local and national politicians and bureaucrats were slow to respond. There was no recent precedent, the lifeblood of all bureaucracies, and therefore no practical disaster response plans for a quake of that size.
Thus, the second legacy of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe was improved disaster preparedness. New laws, government posts and policies were created, allowing for better coordination when disaster struck, as well as for Self-Defense Forces, foreign militaries and NGO groups to respond more quickly. Years later, Kobe would rightly say the response to the March 2011 quake and tsunami would have been much worse had Japan not learned lessons from the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Finally, an overlooked legacy of the quake is the use of new communications technology it spurred, specifically cell phones.
Before 1995, cell phones were still a tad unusual, at least in Kansai. But with landlines down after the quake, mobile phone sales and rentals skyrocketed. By the summer of 1995, they were no longer a slightly exotic toy but a critical lifeline to friends and family.
Today, Kobe has been rebuilt and faces the challenges of how to deal with an aging, shrinking population and prevent local businesses and individuals from fleeing elsewhere. For many, the Great Hanshin Earthquake is a distant memory.
But with climate change leading to increasingly severe storms and flooding, it’s clear the response to the Great Hanshin Earthquake remains relevant. Especially when local governments, and not just those in the Kobe area, draw up their local plans for future development and their literal — not just economic — survival.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.