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Kobe rises like a phoenix

Feb 08, 2010

When an earthquake of magnitude of 7.3 hit the Japanese port city Kobe on January 17, 1995, some areas came to resemble like war-ravaged zones, almost as if they had been carpet-bombed. Today, however, Kobe appears every inch a swanky city, writes Rajender Singh Negi.

Kobe, Japan: Memories of the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake – as it is commonly referred to – are still fresh. For 58-year old Masakazu Sueyoshi, a meteorological consultant, trauma of what he experienced decade-and-a-half ago is like as if it happened yesterday.

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“Tremors struck at 5.46 am in the morning. I was still asleep and dreaming. In the dream, Godzilla was hurling a rock at me. When I woke up there was a big chunk of rock on my chest and I was confused. I couldn’t figure out, if it was a dream or a reality.”

“I was on second floor and for a moment it seemed the building would come crumbling down due to the violent shaking of the earth. It was terrifying,” he recalled.

He was lucky to have survived. His wife and two children also escaped unhurt. But when he came out he could see only rubble and debris all around and the people screaming for help.

Some 6,400 lives were lost, more than 40,000 had sustained minor or grievous injuries and the property worth 10 trillion yen [about 115 billion USD, as per current conversion rates ($1 = 86 yens)] was destroyed that included residential houses, public facilities and urban infrastructure, such as public and commercial buildings, express highways, railroads and harbours.

Foreigners particularly suffered during the earthquake in Kobe. Being a port city, it also happens to be a place where a significant population of foreigners lives.

"The biggest mistake that we committed was that we never believed that the area would be hit by an earthquake as massive as it was"

This was the biggest earthquake – in terms of loss to human lives and property – that had hit Japan since the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in and around Tokyo, resulting in the death of about 142,800 people.

Yuichiro Hirazawa, Assistant Director, Disaster Management Planning Bureau of Hyogo Prefectural government said: “The biggest mistake that we committed was that we never believed that the area would be hit by an earthquake as massive as it was. Such earthquakes are the phenomenon in Tokyo but not here in the western part of Japan.”

Therefore, there was no preparedness, nor was there enough awareness about it. This was the reason perhaps why Kobe suffered such massive losses of human lives and property. “I am not very proud of our response and performance immediately after the tragedy,” he confessed.

He also recalled that the areas that had good city planning suffered less damage. He lauded the action taken by the citizens in terms of providing immediate succour and later on in the reconstruction process. These were the reasons why so much of emphasis has been given to city planning in post-Kobe earthquake reconstruction plan, as also the role of communities in disaster preparedness.

A swanky city now

Fifteen years later, though, the entire Kobe gives a look of a swanky city. Newly-built houses and public buildings, highways, railroads, sparklingly clean streets and parks give away no clue whatsoever of the devastation.

"Some 439,608 houses had suffered damage, as a result of which 320,000 people had come on the streets"

Japanese government along with the government of Hyogo Prefecture undertook massive reconstruction plan to rebuild Kobe city [capital of Hyogo] afresh. The plan came to be known as Hyogo Phoenix Plan and the target year was decided as 2005 with a budget of 17 trillion yen. Ten cities and 10 towns in the entire prefecture were to be rebuilt.

Some 439,608 houses had suffered damage, as a result of which 320,000 people had come on the streets, living in difficult conditions without food and water. As the damage to residential houses was huge, the priority was given to housing, along with infrastructure and industry.

By 1998, almost all targets were achieved. Then started a phase that had to concentrate on larger goals, which included creation of a society that would allow citizens to use their resources and take an active role in the reconstruction of disaster-affected areas; establishment of cooperative network for various sectors; development of a vital community where people lived together, accepting and celebrating each other’s differences; and promotion of a recycling-oriented economy for sustainable development, etc.

The city also today boasts of a world’s longest suspension bridge. Completed in 1998, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, also known as Pearl Bridge, has a record main span of 1,191 metres that connects Kobe on the mainland of Honshu to Iwaya in Awaji island, crossing the Akashi Strait.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government body entrusted with Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), also tries to share its experience and lessons learnt from Kobe earthquake to help out peoples and governments across the world. For instance, it has sent rescue teams and relief materials to countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and others struck with natural disasters in recent past. A team of doctors was also sent to Haiti, when a massive earthquake occurred last month.

A transformed Ward

In 1995, the population of Nagata Ward in Kobe city was 140,000 and in the aftermath of the earthquake it dropped down to 70,000. The population of foreigners was also high – about 7-8%.

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Among them were Koreans, who had come here before the World War II, the Vietnamese who had migrated after the Vietnam War and the Filipinos, who trickled in, in the 1970s.

A lot of Latin Americans, whose roots were in Japan, also came to live here after 1990, said Junichi Hibino, who has been working to build bridges between these foreigners and Japanese since 1995. There were as many as 28 nationalities that lived here.

The area also had a significant population of Japanese minorities, such as Burakumin, Ainu of Hokkado and the Ryukyuans of Okinawa.

“These minorities have been discriminated against due to their family history. Considered descendants of outcast communties of the feudal era with occupations considered tainted with death or ritual impurity (executioners, undertakers or tanners]. They traditionally lived in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos,” informed Sayuri Nakajima of Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), an NGO that works in close association with JICA.

Spread over 13 hectares, Nagata Ward had suffered maximum damage and residents here had to go through a real ordeal. As per a report, “more than 12,000 housing units were left fully collapsed. Close to 4,000 units fully burned. Some 735 people died, including 59 foreign residents.

This was also an area where lots of shoe factories operated from. As per a government report released then, “about 90% of the enterprises concerned with the shoe industry in Nagata and Suma Wards were completely destroyed and the total damage mounted to 300 billion yen.”

One of the reasons that the area saw maximum collapse of buildings was because it was inhabited by people with low incomes and thus had houses that were not resilient to withstand high intensity quakes.

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Since the houses in the locality were built in a haphazard manner and the roads were not wide enough for people to escape in case of emergency, it was decided by the Hyogo Prefecture government to go for land readjustment, informed Asayama Saburo, chairman, Nodahokubu Machizukuri Conference that has played a crucial role in managing demolition of collapsed buildings at public expense, holding study group on land readjustment project, district planning, collaborative construction of apartments, etc.

More than the government it was a collective effort of the residents that has made such a turnaround possible, said Saburo.

Nice little aesthetically built quake-resistant houses, broad streets, a memorial park, a playground, a community centre and plenty of trees. Today, Nagata Ward is a completely transformed locality. It can never occur to a South Asian eye that the area belongs to a group of people with low incomes!

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