Monday, January 17, 2005

5:46 am, January 17, 1995

That is the time and date that no Kobekko will ever forget, when the biggest earthquake in post-WWII Japan, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, hit my hometown of Kobe and surrounding cities. Today, Jan 16 at 4:46 pm in New York time would mark exactly 10 years since the earthquake that measured 7.2 on the richter scale, killed over 5,000 people, displaced over 300,000 residents from their homes and otherwise laid a path of devastation. [click here to continue]

I remember feeling so helpless - being a continent away, not being able to get in touch with relatives, hearing reports that emergency vehicles couldn't get into the city. The Osaka-Kobe metropolis, despite being the second biggest population center in Japan, was woefully unprepared for large-scale quakes because something like this was only supposed to happen in the more earthquake-prone areas around Tokyo.

But we were also fortunate. Our relatives all survived unharmed, though they were forced out of their homes. The quake came very early in the morning, long before commuters were out on the road and homes were using gas fire to cook. The damage could have been much, much worse.

It feels like such a long time ago - I still remember coming back from school, seeing the fallen elevated expressway on the news and thinking "Shit, that's like 10 minutes from where I grew up." Yet, if you to Kobe, there are very few signs that it ever happened, except in downtown areas of Nagata that were worst hit by the quake and the subsequent fires.

Even if there aren't any apparent signs of the tragedy though, the city has changed forever. In the short term, the rebuilding took a huge economic toll, and getting all the displaced families back into permanent homes was a process that took years.

But over the long haul, Kobe changed for the good. At the risk of being cliche, the city came together and forged an identity. People helped each other, and took pride as citizens like I had never seen before. It's not that Kobe lacked an identity before - it was a port city that was known for being cosmopolitan and fashionable - but as a relatively new city, not that many citizens thought of themselves as Kobekko. Kobe never had the strong emotional roots that nearby Osaka or Kobe had.

That's different now. The people of Kobe had a common goal, and now take pride as Kobe citizens. As corny as it may sound, they rose from the ashes and the identity of the city is stronger than ever. And I'm happy to see the city taking intiative in helping the areas hit by the recent Tsunamis. I don't want cheap sentimentality to trivialize the lives that were lost, the people who were left homeless and everyone else who experienced the hardship firsthand. But I hope they understand that their struggles are appreciated and that they didn't suffer in vain.

Kobe marks 10 years since quake (CNN)
10 Years After the Quake - Kobe: picturesque city by the sea (Japan Times)

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