Commentary / Japan

Remembering and learning from the Kobe quake

by Robert D. Eldridge

Special To The Japan Times

Twenty years ago on Jan. 17 at 5:00 a.m., I awoke and began my morning routine of making coffee and sitting down to a good book. I was actually lying down, as I lived in 4.5 tatami mat room and my bed also served as my couch. I had returned to Japan on 15 January, following a trip to the United States to celebrate Christmas with the family. It was the first time to be home in more than two years.

While home in New Jersey, I had transitioned to decaffeinated coffee, but as I did not have any with me in my student dorm in Toyonaka City, Osaka Prefecture, I used regular coffee. About 40 minutes later after I poured my first cup, my body started vibrating and I got very jumpy. I thought it was the effect of the caffeine, but when the Earth started roaring, the building rumbling, the room shaking, and the furniture and items in my room jumping and flying around, I knew it was not the coffee.

It was the magnitude 6.8 earthquake that damaged much of Kobe and southern Hyogo Prefecture, later known as the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, that killed more than 6,000 people, including two of my classmates. One was Jun Kudo, who was on the path of becoming a great scholar of political science, and the other was Wataru Mori, who seemed destined to become a star reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun.

They say the earthquake lasted 20 seconds but, having already been awake at the time and feeling it throughout, it felt like a lifetime. It was the scariest experience of my life.

After checking on my neighbors and rendering first aid to someone, I called my future bride to check on her family. Afterward, I spent the next three months volunteering, usually cycling to Kobe from Osaka. Some of the volunteer work included interpreting for the international relief organization, Americares. Other work included distributing food, maintaining evacuation shelters, carrying food and cleaning toilets. It was my first interaction with the Ground Self-Defense Force.

Being the first major disaster in decades, the central government was ill-prepared and handled the response poorly, but the community rallied. Many lessons were learned by Japan at the time. Volunteerism grew, trust and faith in their military grew, cooperation between related organizations grew, public awareness about the importance of disaster preparation grew and legislation was updated. As a result, Japan has handled subsequent disasters, including the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 — in which nearly 20,000 people were killed or went missing — amazingly well.

I closely followed Japan’s crisis and disaster management progress following the Kobe earthquake, both as an academic at Osaka University and then as a senior U.S. government official working for the U.S. Marine Corps, making recommendations along the way, including the partnering with U.S. Forces in Japan.

Those recommendations went unheeded until the March 2011 disaster, but thanks to the personal relationships and organizational relationships that existed between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military, and the fact that U.S. forces are forward-positioned in Japan, we were able to respond rapidly and relatively smoothly. That massive joint and combined relief effort became known as Operation Tomodachi.

Since then, we have worked closely with particularly vulnerable communities along the Pacific Coast to build habits of cooperation and develop personal relations between prefectural officials and SDF and U.S. personnel. We conduct mutual visits and personnel exchanges, share lessons learned and capability briefings, and have even participated in a number of disaster drills around the country. (For more information, see the flier “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Efforts: We Are Here for You!” prepared by III MEF/MCIPAC Public Affairs Office, available at www.okinawa.marines.mil/Portals/190/Docs/HADR.pdf .) These bonds, known as kizuna in Japanese, will pay off when the next disaster comes.

After the Kobe earthquake, friends in the U.S. would tell me, “man, you were unlucky to have experienced that” but I tell them it was a true honor to have been able to share that time with the Japanese people, working with them to help their — our — neighbors and community. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. The same is true for the Great East Japan Earthquake. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else but helping the Japanese people.

The U.S. has an alliance with Japan, which permits the stationing of its forces here. However, it was not because of the alliance with Japan that the U.S. responded in its time of need. It is because the two countries are friends. They will face many tough times ahead as well, but knowing they are doing it together either as allies or better yet, friends, is reassuring.

Robert Eldridge, a 25-year resident of Japan and the deputy assistant chief of staff, Government and External Affairs, Marine Corps Installations Pacific, served as the political adviser to the forward command element of U.S. Forces Japan during Operation Tomodachi at Camp Sendai.