From Kobe to the World

What have we learned from the earthquake?

Takashi Tsumura
Chi-kung master & grass-roots community leader

No one talks about the Great Hanshin Earthquake these days, it's no longer a fashionable subject. Now it is a thing of the past, a reference in people's memories. The first anniversary memorial day will keep the media busy, but really, most people have little concern for what's going on in Kobe today.

No matter where you live in the Japanese archipelago, it is possible for you to experience a major earthquake. That may be one reason that people do not make a fuss about Kobe: it's nothing special. Or perhaps they are fed up with the continuing bad news, not only of Kobe, but also of the Aum cult.

Are reports on the quake taken in solely as information? Is it that people are just looking for novelties, new and pleasing topics? Watching the effects of the quake on television, for most people (especially in Tokyo), the quake was a distant event, another Somalia or Sarajevo.

Cameras showed people in pain, calling for help, but the victims themselves had no knowledge of how they were being depicted.

Some people, to be sure, did act on their sympathy for the victims. By the end of March, more than one million volunteer rescue workers had come to Kobe, donations amounted to some 170 billion yen. 1995 was called "the first year of the Japanese voluntary spirit," and NGO activities at last came to receive the recognition from society that they deserve. But the number of volunteers active today is less than 0.1% of the peak number (it may even be less than 0.01%).

And what became of the donations? People who lost their homes were given 100,000 yen each, but of the remaining funds, some 100 billion yen is still frozen. Out of a fear that they'd be criticized for "unequal and unfair" distribution, no matter what method of distribution they pursued, fund administrators simply gave up on following any method and have not used the funds in any way. They decided to do nothing with the donations. These donations came from many, many people who were sympathetic of the earthquake victims. Now the donors are concerned that their money is not being used for the purpose it was given.


There are still some 2,000 people in the Kobe area living in tents, in the makeshift emergency housing in schools and public halls. Many of these "homes" are made of cardboard that fails to keep out the cold. Some of the people living there work, the majority are jobless, deprived of social and financial means to alter their lifestyles. Twenty-three percent of these people have made no income at all since the quake. Usually, households without any income for such a long period are eligible for social welfare, but these people do not qualify because they do not have permanent domiciles, according to government officials who refuse to offer them any money.

Another 40,000 people are living in "temporary housing" provided by municipal authorities, but these are extremely inferior dwellings. At first glance they remind one of "camps," places for confining people. Business is not allowed on these sites. People are not allowed to make money in the same place they live and sleep. The elderly have to walk a long way just to buy food and daily necessities.

The official policy is that the priority in temporary housing is to go to the aged and disabled. This may be politically correct, but the reality is that these people were selectively relocated, one by one, from their neighborhoods to the temporary housing sites. Having been displaced from their homes and neighborhoods, many of these people are lonely and have no contact with other inhabitants on the site...they have no friends or relatives or neighbors to speak with. Whether they live in their own homes or with relatives, most of these people live under very difficult conditions. It is easy for anyone to see that the city of Kobe has failed to provide appropriate support for these many people.

("Death in isolation" is the term used to describe cases in which people die and no knowledge or notice of their deaths is taken until long after. More than 30 people in Kobe have died this way. About the same number have committed suicide.)


In the process of performing rescue and reconstruction activities, Kobe City Hall destroyed existing community networks. Authorities feel that they have done a decent job because they've pulled down damaged buildings and made some new buildings at a rapid rate. They boast that "reconstruction is proceeding smoothly."

But shouldn't they really be worried that so many people are not living the kind of normal lives they led before the quake struck? Is the city's physical condition their only concern? The city has announced that in 10 years its account deficit will come to some 680 billion yen, hence, a major cut must be made in welfare expenditures. On the other hand, the city has not canceled its new international airport project, an airport that is clearly being built out of a sense of competition vis-a-vis the new Kansai International Airport in nearby Osaka.

For those who suffered in the quake, the damage did not cease on January 17, 1995. They have lived under the spell of the quake for 365 days now. The damage persists. Perhaps this is difficult to understand for those who did not suffer in the quake. In some areas, water and gas supplies were suspended for as much as a couple of months.

Last spring, the air and sky over Kobe was completely opaque, it looked like liquid cement, filled with the dust and debris of the demolition of some 80,000 buildings. Asbestos, a carcinogenic material, filled the air. People wore face masks. But they soon realized these were of no use.

The city of Kobe lies on a narrow strip of land between sea and mountains. In June, when the rainy season arrived, warnings were issued that landslides might occur in the hills and mountains of the area. The people living at the feet of these areas had to be relocated. During the rainy season, people who were forced to live in tents were soaked most of the time.

In the summer, temperature rose to as high as 40 degrees inside those same tents. Air conditioners were installed in temporary dwellings, but many people did not use them as they could not pay for the electricity. Some people died or fell severely ill due to dehydration.

In the autumn, unemployment insurance expired for those who began to receive it as a result of the quake. But neither the city nor Hyogo Prefecture made any special effort to help or extend aid to these unemployed people. Some businesses encouraged their employees to join voluntary activities to help quake victims. But on the other hand, many businesses refuse to recruit people experienced workers and new graduates alike who live in temporary housing.

Winter has arrived and we are now worried about people dying from freezing. Kerosene heaters are not allowed in the temporary housing, and for people living in tents, the heaters will hardly be sufficient to save a person from freezing. Such were and are the days and seasons in Kobe.


It's not over: it's barely begun. Forty percent of the people living in temporary housing are aged, a percentage that corresponds to the estimated number of aged people in Japan in 20 years. In this sense, Kobe can be called a model of Japan's future. The plight of these people in Kobe may be a warning for the nation as a whole, a sign of the impasse that it could come to.

Last November, some Australian Aboriginals visited Kobe. They performed a land healing ceremony at Ishigami Shrine, which is located near the quake's epicenter of Awaji Island. According to Japan's ancient myths, Awaji was the first place the deities created when they created the Japanese archipelago. Izanagi Shrine, named after the procreative god Izanagi, is also near the epicenter. The Aboriginals told us of their "eternal ad hoc domicile." They were driven out of their native lands by white people and have been living on reservations ever since. Yet their situation may be considered better than that of those living in temporary housing in Kobe.

For they at least have been able to maintain their community networks based on traditional family units. But too, many Aboriginals have been defeated by alcohol as a result of loneliness and forced inertia. They are experienced masters of living in ad hoc environments.

The earthquake destroyed a lot of the city's low-rent, old-fashioned and collective types of housing. Redevelopment projects are now under way to erect luxurious condominiums where these homes used to be. Of course, this is being done without the consent of the former residents. It is as if the city were saying to them that they should abandon the idea of ever coming back to the places they grew up and lived in, as if they should acquiesce to this kind of diaspora.

If one accepts this scenario, it potentially means that any resident of Kobe faces the risk of being told to leave in order to make way for economic productivity. Anyone with sufficient economic powercan come in and occupy the city. The only exceptions would be those living in temporary housing, which really belongs to no one. These might remain as the reservations of the "natives" of Kobe.

To close the curtain on the earthquake and its aftermath would be to disregard the existence of so many people who continue to suffer from what happened. What's more, the meaning of the quake, and what people actually did and felt and had to undergo during the quake, is still not sufficiently documented and understood. Again, the earthquake is not over.


The people of Kobe behaved well. There was no looting. (Looters at damaged and fire-stricken sites were outsiders who took advantage of the emergency.) They were polite to public officials too. The UN Habitat Survey Group enquired into the mobilization of military units to relocate people whose homes were damaged. They could not believe that such a major operation, one that was in fact a grave violation of people's basic rights, was carried out without conflict.

Some people organized a sit-in protest in front of City Hall. They represented the voice of the people, in part, at least. But they really were not so popular. Why? The attitude held by most people is that, "The city is doing what it can for us, even though its way of thinking is not quite the same as ours. We must make them learn little by little." They feel that making a villain of the city will not bring about any solution. Their pacifist attitude may be lethal, or it may become a sign of hope for a new type of drive for autonomy.

The biggest stumbling block is that the very people who are in charge of developing and implementing reconstruction policies and practices have not really learned anything from the realities of the earthquake. For them, disaster prevention is merely a matter of quantity, not quality. They seem to believe that the most effective solution is to improve the physical strength of buildings.

But the people have learned something else.
"You are dealing with the entire planet. You may set some standards and name some safety limits, but the planet and its geology will not necessarily obey or behave in the ways you anticipate. In principle, there are no infallible preventive measures when it comes to natural disasters. Living on this planet means that one accepts the possibility of disasters. Realistically, what's at stake is to minimize damage as much as possible, especially human damage and suffering," says one seismologist.

"Not a single life was lost specifically by the quake. People were crushed by a house, a refrigerator, or a television set they'd bought. They were killed by material objects, by their greed for things," says a friend who had to dig out the bodies of three family members.

What would a perfectly earthquake-resistant city look like? It would be made entirely of steel and concrete. Better for no one to live in such a place. But city planners don't think this way, and they are the ones responsible for Kobe's reconstruction. And so we hear all kinds of outrageous stories.

More than a few people even expressed "sympathy" toward the earthquake itself!

Not only intellectuals, but people with common sense, too. I have heard people say, "I knew it would come. We deserved it. We are paying for what we've done." Even among those who lost their families and homes, there were quite a few who regarded the quake as "god's wrath."

Wrath toward what? Against the conduct of the city and its management, all that city-making fever: how the mountains were quarried without any concern for nature's ecosystem, how the quarried soil was used to reclaim land, how gigantic bridges and buildings were made.

In fact, the city had to mobilize a team of scholars for a press conference where they announced that, "The earthquake did not happen on account of the large piles that were driven into the sea floor for the construction of Akashi Bridge." Otherwise, many people would believe that those piles did cause the quake. Akashi Bridge is a major project now under way, the bridge will connect Kobe with Awaji Island and be the largest bridge in Japan. The epicenter, of course, was in fact near the Awaji side of the bridge.

The bridge project goes on. The only major project that has been indefinitely postponed was the one to build an opera house inside Rokko Mountain. Yes, inside the mountain. They planned to hollow out the center of the mountain and put an opera house in there! Musicians were skeptical about it but the contractors were enthusiastic.

The citizens of Kobe have never officially proclaimed a "No!" to the city's redevelopment policies. Almost all political forces, including the Communist Party, have supported the mayor. But deep inside themselves, they are disillusioned and feel helpless about the way in which the city is proceeding with its plans: mega-scale urban development, international expos, tourism development. These projects are to be realized at the sacrifice of traditional and amenable living spaces for the community.


"Up to now, I thought a city consisted of buildings and roads and train systems and various public projects. But when the earthquake destroyed all of that, I discovered another dimension to the city. For the first time, I established close ties with my neighbors, ties of mutual help, real communication that is the real substance of what it is to live in a city. Oh, the buildings and transportation systems will be restored eventually, but if we lose this sense of community, then we will have learned nothing from the quake," says a Port Island resident.

I often look back and reflect on the meaning of the "excitement" we all felt in the aftermath of the quake.

People were polite and careful when driving, so that they would not cause any accidents or traffic congestion. No matter how hard one's own circumstances might have been, people were always ready to help others. Even people who had lost almost everything were more than generous in sharing what little they had with others even less fortunate. Standing everyday in queues for water for some seven weeks, we came to take a new look at what fulfillment means, or convenience, and what we had sacrificed for such apparent benefits.

"Go visit the vast fire-stripped land of Nagata Ward, and you'll feel a certain spiritual aura. It is deep. This is a sacred spot. If you hope to never forget the quake, go there and see that site before it's covered over with new buildings," says a nursery principal in Hyogo.

"We should suspend the water supply every year on January 17 for a whole week. I'd say the traffic lights too, but that'd probably be too dangerous," says a Nada Ward taxi driver.

These people have learned much from the quake.

Even if your house was not completely destroyed, you still had to spend days or weeks putting your home in order. Throwing away broken cups and dishes and soaked books, many of us asked ourselves, "Whatever induced me to buy this thing, or to cherish that?"

Some people removed the heavy burdens of their lives in throwing away so many material things. They were grateful to have survived and then to be freed of this materialist greed. They could have been crushed by this wardrobe or that cupboard. Of those many countless objects, which did they really need when they purchased them? When they were relocated to temporary housing, the things they took were few: photo albums, rare records or books, some clothes to protect them in the cold. Finally they realized how redundant their lifestyles had been, when they'd thought they were in fact advocating a "simple life."

Perhaps then the essential objective of a disaster prevention plan should be to teach us how not to be killed by our houses and property.

One of Japan's major newspapers carried an article calling for "an emergency road system that could never be destroyed." It made me think of the bamboo houses I once saw in a rural village in southern China. All of the homes and community centers were made of bamboo. A typhoon would sweep them all away, but they would all be rebuilt again within a matter of weeks.

After the Kobe quake, earthquakes of a magnitude of 7.2 twice struck the Yunnan Province of China. I don't know anymore details other than that there were few deaths. Doesn't Yunnan present a kind of alternative to Kobe? Isn't a fragile city safer for its inhabitants? Of course, Kobe has a population of 1.6 million, and scale does matter. But nonetheless, perhaps we can learn something from Yunnan.


Kobe was different from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that struck Tokyo. For one, there was no massacre of the city's Korean residents. Even some Japanophobic Korean newspapers wrote, "Witnessing the attitude of the people of Kobe, our feeling toward the people of Japan becomes favorable." An old Korean woman watching TV saw for the first time in her life, Japanese crying out in despair. She quoted a news report from Seoul, "The Japanese are human, just like us." 1995 was the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, but the Japanese government failed to rise to the historic occasion and reconcile our relations with other Asian nations. But at least one Korean woman changed her mind about us. This, thanks to an earthquake!

Our Asian neighbors remain skeptical about the Japanese, despite our attempts at reconciliation. Why? Because we are not ready to give up or sacrifice anything, we continue our wasteful consumerist way of life. If you compare life in Tokyo with that in a deprived rural village, there may be a difference of 1 to 100 in terms of scale of economy. If the rest of the world grows at the Japanese rate, the planet might reach its ecological (and other) limits.

The people of the world might demand that we reduce the scale of our economy to one-tenth of what it is now, thereby proving to them that, yes, we can change our lifestyle, and hence, our values. This is called an equal stance, and I can hear voices clamoring for it.

Some people in Kobe are calling themselves refugees instead of victims. Their present living conditions hardly differ from that of the millions of refugees around the world, and they are equally isolated. Can these people then relate to their Asian neighbors at the same level?

Did the earthquake occur so as to teach us that a simple life is the only way to dwell on this planet?

Before the quake, Kobe's image was of a quasi-European, Westernized city, with a foreigner's quarter and the futuristic Rokko Island. In the wake of the quake, an alternative reconstruction plan the city could and should have adopted was to present Kobe as an "Asian" city.

Right now, it certainly resembles one: roadside foodstands, tent-dwelling sites that possess all the attractions of nomadic flexibility, the vibrant excitement of Chinatown, the increased use of bicycles, the drive to reconstruct Nagata Ward in a specifically Asian manner, the unofficial mini-FM station that broadcasts in seven languages, healing sessions held at rescue sites where acupuncture and chi-kung is practiced, and Kobe Co-op, which now boasts the largest network of its type in Japan, and which has also finally decided to experiment with vernacular agricultural methods. All of these may signify the Kobe of the future.

Kobe's foreign population shows a wide demography: some 89 different nationalities are represented, plus some non-nationalities, for a total of 45,000 people. None were harassed to death by Japanese. But most were deemed ineligible for public rations or other basic supplies. There was then a nationality barrier, and with the additional one of language, many people are still suffering. There is a public placement office called, cutely enough, "Hello Work," but there are still some 38,000 people without work due to the quake. The most disadvantaged are the foreigners.

Drives to help foreigners who suffered in the quake were initiated by fellow Japanese victims and NGOs. Those initial objectives have by now become enhanced, and now they offer not only emergency assistance, but are also working on realizing a permanent environment for multicultural cohabitation. By multicultural, they mean a community open to different nationalities, as well as the young and the old, the handicapped, and people suffering from all kinds of social disadvantages. We need to find a way to embrace all of these cultures and lifestyles.


The realities are severe, and solutions come slowly. But conceptually, mightn't our style of work be light and cheerful? True, the International House collapsed, and the project to construct a new International Hall has been canceled. But we hope all the more that our foreign residents and disabled fellow citizens can all live together comfortably in Kobe. We hope to nurture an arena where we can learn from and teach different cultural resources on an equal footing. If this can be realized by a large number of Kobe residents, then the city will truly become internationalized, and would present a strong alternative to its former image. A deeper, truer internationalization would become a true part of Kobe.

Is the road open to and from Kobe? Among the many people who have had contact with the God of Fire in recent years, Unzen in southern Japan, Okushiri in the north, Izu in the center, Sakhalin, Yunnan in China, Pinatubo in the Philippines, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, is there any sign that a spiritual corridor can be formed to connect us all for our mutual coexistence?

January 10, 1996

[sensing Japan, Tsumura's report part 1]
[sensing Japan, Tsumura's report part 2]

[library "earth" (Takemura's essay)]

Theme pavilion "sensorium" (sensorium home page)
INTERNET 1996 WORLD EXPOSITION (World Public Park) / JAPAN (Japan EXPO home page)