Sendai quake brings back Kobe memories

Residents of port city describe the moment a deadly earthquake hit Japan in 1995.

japan tsunami

Kobe residents describing the moment the last great earthquake hit Japan in 1995


KOBE – Maybe it was a gas pipe explosion, or a plane crashing into nearby buildings. Whatever that massive jolt was, it could not have possibly been an earthquake.

Michiyo Tobe, 59, said she was raised with the expectation that there would be no great earthquake in Kobe, the port city about 500km west of Tokyo. That was the thinking at the time, she said.

But waking up in the early hours of January 17, 1995 to massive vertical jolts proved that assumption to be horribly wrong.

On the opposite end of the city from where Tobe lived, Kazuhiko Okada, 76, was already dressed and standing when he mistook a massive seismic shift for a plane crashing nearby.

The two survivors spoke to Al Jazeera in a noisy cafe in Kobe – attempts to interview them in a quieter surroundings were met with: “Japan is noisy”.

No words – just sounds

The earthquake museum, where several survivors – including Tobe and Okada volunteer – serves as a solemn reminder of the sort of destruction that can happen in an instant – of how quickly over 6,000 lives can be taken, imposing buildings levelled and basic comforts robbed. 

Along with displays showing issues with construction which caused damage to houses and freeways – many of them built to decades-old codes – there are educational and multimedia presentations giving a surprisingly realistic idea of what unfolded on that bitterly cold morning 16 years ago.

If it sounds theme-parkesque, it’s not. If anything, the silence in the spaces coupled with images of heavy destruction (apartment building where the first floor is flattened such that the second floor is now on ground level, etc.) is an effective means of showing what it must have seemed like.

One presentation, a re-enactment of the quake – created using actual images of destroyed neighbourhoods and infrastructure – is short – around 7 minutes and is just footage of houses, roads and buildings bending, flexing, breaking and burning. There are no people in the recreated montage, only the sounds of a city being demolished by what must’ve seemed like a subterranean bomb.

The documentary footage shows rescue teams, civilians and military, quietly sifting through rubble, cleaning up and rebuilding, rock by rock, plank by plank.

“I was able to live in my apartment,” said Tobe, considering herself quite lucky.

“But we had no gas and no water, for maybe one and a half months.”

With the help of government forces deployed to assist victims, Tobe said she carried bucket of water, daily, from a nearby school that still had running water.

Aware of the efforts up north, where engineers are working overtime to lay down power lines needed to cool down nuclear reactors damaged by last week’s quake and tsunami, Tobe and Okada express deep admiration for the rescue workers on the frontlines.

“But not the executives,” said Tobe, referring to the highly unpopular Tokyo Electric Power Company’s executives, who many here see as mishandling the situation with the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukoshima.

“No, not them.”

Hampered rescue

Amid reports of damaged ports, roads and bad weather prohibiting the distribution of aid to those in shelters up north, there is also an understanding that food, blankets and medical supplies are in short supply.

In Osaka alone there are dozens of local organisations collecting such necessities to send up north, and people are responding. For example, with hardly any notice for its collection drive, the Yao City Kyuen Bushi said it received goods from nearly 300 people.

A source told Al Jazeera that some of the disaster medical teams have not been able to work effectively in the damaged regions because of multiple complications, including lack of information due to communication issues, lack of water and electricity and the “polarised” nature of those injured – meaning that the injuries are either severe or minor.

Then there’s the issue of determining need.

“Local governments that should work as ”control towers” themselves were physically destroyed and they could not organise data gathering or information control,” said the source.

The uncertainty of what’s unfolding at the nuclear plants is also slowing down the deployment of additional medical personnel.

However, despite the shortcomings, Tobe and Okada are both optimistic that the country, and the directly hit communities will pull through.

“I believe that Japanese character and power will help rebuild,” said Tobe.

“It will take some time,” said Okada. His emphasis on recovery lies on the people, not the authorities.

“I basically believe co-operation among Japanese people will help us to recover,”  said Okado.

“But maybe I am … how do you say it … an optimist.”

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Source: Al Jazeera