Japan is right at the top of the list of world countries facing the most danger from earthquakes. Geologists will explain about the subduction of the restless Philippine Sea plate that lies beneath the Okinawa plate and the Amurian plate that triggers high-intensity earthquakes. Many cities of Japan carry sad memories of earthquakes that have ravaged their region.
Kobe’s tragedy began at 05:46 on the morning of the 17th of January 1995. The epicenter of what would become known to history as the Great Hanshin/Awaji earthquake was at the northern end of Awaji Island, 20 kilometers south of the Kobe waterfront. The seismic event lasted only 40 seconds but was more powerful than the typical Japan earthquake because it occurred along an active fault line. These “inland shallow earthquakes” are extremely fearsome since they begin so close to the earth’s surface.
In Kobe, the overhead Hanshin Expressway toppled and more than 150,000 buildings were destroyed. Of the 150 quays in the Kobe port – the sixth largest container port in the world – 120 collapsed. Almost one-quarter of the central business district was rendered unusable. The rebuilding bill was more than ten trillion yen, which represented 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product in 1995.
But far worse was the human toll. 6,434 people were killed – most in their houses that pancaked when heavy roofs, installed to help withstand typhoon winds, collapsed. The Great Hanshin/Awaji earthquake was the worst to strike Japan in seventy years.
Some good emerged from the disaster. As a country, Japan had little volunteer culture before the Kobe earthquake. But the destruction was on such a massive scale that an estimated 1.38 million people donated their time to help rebuild the city. Since then grass-roots activism and volunteerism have become ingrained in Japanese life.
The power of the Great Hanshin/Awaji earthquake – the first ever to register a magnitude greater than 7.0 – also shook up the country’s civil engineers. Disaster prevention became a national priority. For instance, rubber blocks were installed in buildings to help absorb shock. Before 1995 was out, the Japanese government declared that the 17th of January would be “Disaster Prevention and Volunteerism Day” going forward.
Two decades later, Kobe has not forgotten. The establishment of the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution in 2002 spawned the Earthquake Memorial Museum (1-5-2 Kaigan-dori, Wakinohama, Chuo-ku, Kobe) that educates visitors about the tremors that plague Japan and what can be done to prevent widespread disaster. The recovery of the Kobe people is captured in a documentary film and interactive games teach future generations what they can do to minimize the impact of earthquakes.
Higashi-yuenchi Park became the site of the Earthquake Memorial Monument with the installation of the 1.17 Light of Hope monument to symbolize the reconstruction of the city. A further remembrance of the victims occurs for two weeks in early December when 200,000 hand-painted lights illuminate the streets during the Kobe Luminarie.
On Awaji Island, the Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park preserves evidence of the deadly Nojima Fault as a national natural monument. Disaster preparation and awareness is stressed to visitors who are shaken for 40 seconds at the site to simulate the strength of the Great Hanshin/Awaji earthquake. The Port of Kobe Earthquake Memorial Park has saved a segment of the Meriken wharf that was twisted into ruins by the quake, telling the tale with models, movies and photograph exhibits.
Image by 663highland (663highland) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons