Kobe commemorates earthquake victims

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5,600 citizens morns deads with candlelights

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Kobe, Japan — January 17, 2005. Several commemoration ceremonies were recently held for victims of the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, mainly in Kansai region. The municipality of Kobe and supporting organisations held one such ceremony in the early morning of January 17. It was the biggest ceremony held that day. Over 5,000 people gathered in the East Playground in the center of city. Participants included surviving citizens and volunteers from around the whole country who had helped out. At 5:43 a.m., just 10 years after the earthquake first occurred, people lit candles in honor of the 6,433 victims. The victims included 133 people who died in the aftermath of the disaster, due to physical or mental difficulties caused by the heavy changes in their life.

The earthquake centered around Awaji Island, near the city of Kobe. It measured 7.3 on the Richter Scale, the biggest quake to hit Japan since World War II. Though a great earthquake could theoretically occur in any part of Japan, and scientists had warned of the possibility of earthquakes in the Kansai region, citizens and local government tended to be unaware of this possibility 10 years ago. The death and destruction caused by the quake gave a serious shock to the city's residents. One story of the Kobe city hall was totally destroyed, and a part of Meishin Highway between Nagoya and Kobe was ripped apart; a bus barely avoided falling from the broken highway. Engineers buttressed vulnerable city structures throughout Japan after the earthquake. Research revealed that architecture designed under national earthquake-proof standards had survived the earthquake. Many old buildings were rebuilt, reconstructed, or given structual support. Vulnerable city infrastructure was also attended to; in some areas water and fuel supply had been disrupted for over two months. Many municipalities reviewed their standards for civil engineering design.

The earthquake also revealed systematic vulnerability within the Japanese government. The prime minister at that time, Tomiichi Murayama, first learned of the earthquake from a TV news program two hours later, and not from a government report. He called his secretary, who also knew nothing of it. The government improved these weaknesses, and in the case of the Chuetsu Earthquake in October 2004, the prime minister's office was able to quickly deal with the accident.

After the earthquake, many people spent days in shelters. 104,900 houses were completely destroyed, and 144,256 only partly desroyed. The Hyogo prefecture and municipalities provided temporary shelters, called Kasetsujutaku. Such temporary houses had remained since 2000. Since those houses were provided to individuals and not to communities, many people found they were no longer with their familiar neighbors after moving. This caused serious problems among people, especially the elderly. Since 2000, around 200 people have died alone in such temporary houses, to be found only days later; this was considered a serious social problem. A word was even coined for this situation, Kodokushi (meaning "death in solitude" in Japanese), but some say no effective solution has yet been offered.

The earthquake has also had a bright side. Before the earthquake, it was not popular to participate voluntarily in social activities in Japan. The earthquake moved many people to join such activities. Since it was close to the end of the Japanese schoolyear, many students could stay in the affected area for long days. And it has been not easy to have a vacation for Japanese workers, as many people took vacations from their company and went to the affected area to help out. This was not just a temporary movement, but influenced people to consider such social engagement as a regular activity (one can see a similar influcence in the case of the Chuetsu Earthquake).