At 5:46:51 AM, on January 17, 1995, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake occurred near the northern coast of Awajishima (34.641°N, 135.179°E to be precise), not far from the major port city of Kobe. This earthquake is commonly known as the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (阪神淡路大震災).

The immediate aftermath of the quake killed 6,279 people, injured 34,900, destroyed 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, burning down 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 earthquake.

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.

Nomenclature

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's official designation as the "1995 South Hyogo Prefecture Earthquake" (兵庫県南部地震). The Hanshin (阪神) of the usual term is an abbreviation of Osaka-Kobe (大阪神戸) 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 fires and tsunamis that actually cause most of the damage; the term jishin (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 seismically 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 department store (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...

References

http://www.hanshin-awaji.or.jp/
http://www.udel.edu/DRC/preliminary/260.pdf
http://geoinfo.usc.edu/gees/Reports/Report3/japan/KOBE.HTML

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