At 5:46:51 AM, on January 17, 1995
, a magnitude
occurred near the northern coast of
(34.641°N, 135.179°E to be precise), not far from the major
port city of Kobe
is commonly known as the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake
The immediate aftermath of the quake killed 6,279 people, injured
170,000 buildings leaving some 340,000 refugees, and
caused approximately ¥96.3 trillion (approx. $100 billion at the time)
in property damage. Hardest hit were Kobe itself (esp.
the Nada and Nagata districts) and the nearby cities
of Nishinomiya and Ashiya, although deaths were reported as
far away as Osaka and Kyoto.
Over 300 separate (large) fires broke out,
1.3 million square meters. The expressway network around Kobe was
very severely damaged, with no less than 13 bridge failures of
various extent; the notable exception was the
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge linking Awaji Island to the mainland, which
rode the earthquake unharmed despite being located practically above
the epicenter and still under construction!
All railways leading to the affected area, including
Shinkansen, were also severely damaged. In the city of Kobe itself,
the Rokko Island and Port Island districts built on reclaimed land
suffered large-scale liquefaction, ie. parts collapsing back into the sea,
essentially disabling the Port of Kobe (Japan's largest) completely.
All this took place in twenty (20) seconds.
The government's response to the quake was widely criticized; basically,
the next "big" quake was not expected to occur in Kansai (despite
a magnitude 6.1 quake in almost exactly the same spot in 1916),
so when it happened there were almost no contingency plans for
rescuing the 20,000 trapped people, organizing food and shelter for
the quarter-million refugees (in mid-winter!), etc. It took nearly
24 hours before the
Japanese Self-Defence Force was mobilized to assist in the rescue
effort, and Japan also initially refused all overseas offers of assistance.
There are startling accounts of bureaucrats steadfastly following the
letter of the rules while Kobe burned around them, e.g. the administrator
of a civilian air strip refused to allow SDF planes to land!
However, despite some of these inexcusably stupid decisions, it would be
unfair to blame only the government for the quake.
A disaster on this scale would severely tax any concievable
resources, and the nearly complete severance of transport and
communication links effectively prevented conveying information
out, coordinating the response or ferrying workers and supplies in.
Most deaths were caused by the collapse of traditional wooden buildings
with heavy ceramic-tiled and clay-filled roofs, designed to
withstand typhoons but crushing, combustible death traps in an
Five years later on, all major damage has been repaired,
and in the April 2002 the Kobe Phoenix Plaza, dedicated to
documenting the earthquake and assisting in the rebuilding process,
was turned over to Coca-Cola and made into a World Cup 2002
advertising and ticket sales center. Some roped-off and unrepaired
dock sections have been left at the seaside park as a reminder,
and a spanking new (but ratherly inconviniently located) new
museum was opened to continue the work of the Phoenix Plaza.
The quake has quite a few names, and it's worth explaining what the more common ones mean. The Western media often talks of the "Kobe
earthquake", but this isn't all that accurate; then again, neither is the Japan Meteorological Agency
official designation as the "1995 South Hyogo
(阪神) of the usual term is an abbreviation of Osaka
that takes the onyomi
character readings of the middle characters.
A minor linguistic note: the
Japanese term daishinsai
(大震災) literally means
"great earthquake disaster
", referring also to the post-quake fire
s that actually cause most of the damage; the term
(地震) is used to refer to the earthquake itself.
A Personal Note
A good friend of mine lived in Kobe during (and through) the earthquake.
She was one of the lucky ones: her neighborhood was
stable and she escaped without a scratch, damage being
limited to a few overturned cupboards. Unaware of the gravity of
the situation, she actually set off to work on foot like every morning...
only to be confronted with the sight of the Sogo
(a Kobe center landmark) crushed like a pancake, the collapsed
rubble of the elevated expressways
that gird the coastline, smoke, fire and
the smell of burning flesh
... hearing her explain this and casually
point out which buildings were destroyed as we strolled along the
street in question was quite eerie.
There was a thunderstorm immediately before the earthquake,
evidently not an uncommon phenomenon despite the lack of any
obvious connection. Over seven years have passed since the
disaster, and the poor thing still goes into a complete panic
whenever she hears a clap of thunder.
Incidentally, she now lives in a well-located new apartment building
with a surprisingly low rent. Why so cheap? Because the area was
completely flattened during the earthquake...