(originally sent to Friends Jan 19, 1995, then on to Chalmers Johnson, who forwarded this on to Fukuzawa. This would turn out to be my first Fukuzawa essay)

Well, this wasn't THE big one they've been predicting, mainly because it didn't affect Tokyo. But it was A big one. 6 on the Japanese scale (don't know Richter), epicenter just off Kobe itself and actually on inhabited dry land (instead of ocean), and plenty of damage, as you've no doubt seen on the news by now. Lot's of conflagration, probably soon over 3000 dead, and about 20,000 or more homeless.

I had been oblivious. I woke up on Tuesday morning to see how cold Hokkaido had been (they had forecast about -25C for the eastern coast), and instead saw burning buildings and collapsed flyovers. All the networks, even the late-night nudie shows, have been carrying information on the quake and not much else. The death toll continues to rise, and NHK keeps reading lists of dead people over national TV. As you might expect, video rentals are going up...

Suffice it to say, we didn't even feel the quake, let alone be affected by it. I was more adversely affected by the foot of snow that fell this morning (Jan 19) when I had to go proctor an exam at 9:30 am.


Altho it is monstrous to try and find entertainment value in other people's misery, I have a vested interest in seeing somebody from the Ministry of Construction eat some crow over the quake. When that quake hit San Francisco some years ago, there were lots of pictures of collapsed bridges on Japanese TV (particularly Dustin Hoffman's Bay Bridge), accompanied by bureaucrats and academics smugly saying, "This couldn't happen in Japan (nippon de wa arienai koto desu)". I felt my ears burning. So I watched religiously last night as the same people were called to recant their statements by the networks.

It was fun, actually. The media showed the by now famous highway flyover that tipped over and smooshed a number trucks and people, and one guy was even ballsy enough to stand below it and point out a damning fact: He showed that the part of the bridge that didn't tip ended right at the border of Kobe City, whereas once the road entered Kobe, the very first pillar (which had been clearly constructed differently) had buckled, causing a domino effect for probably half a kilometer down. Kobe, people started charging, had been lazy in following building codes. It had indeed happened here, and what was to be done? My evaluation of Japan's forum for public debate went up several notches at that time.

But the euphoria didn't last long. In response, the bureaucrats and engineers hummed and hawed, and then came out with all sorts of bullsta:

1) Japan's earthquakes are different. They shake differently and this one was stronger than the SF one.

2) Kobe's famous flyover was built right on top of a fault line (quite a revelation in itself), so the earthquake might have been stronger at that particular spot than was recorded officially for the city.

3) Kobe doesn't have big earthquakes (or at least not until now), so there was no need to make the standards as high as Tokyo's. (When pushed as to why some buildings collapsed and some didn't, their answer was that, well, maybe some got through the standards net somehow. Oops.)

4) This earthquake might have been unique in its intensity. We'll have to study this more, won't we?

I wasn't convinced, and I doubt many others were either. Of course, nobody was going to admit negligence, or else they'd be for the chop. Still, I wouldn't have minded if they'd inferred somehow they'd made a mistake. Probably too much to expect.

But the fall guy in all this, I hope, will be the Ministry of Construction, probably the most corrupt and useless administration within Japan (and the one which lowers Japan's standards of living the most with its poor housing quality control, ridiculous and haphazard zoning laws, dreadful archetecture, and--since it employs 15% of Japan's workforce--the abilty to keep foreign competitors out). They once said that godawful-looking buildings were the price to pay for earthquake safety. Now they've shown the world that even safety isn't guaranteed. It'll be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Anyway, it'll be years before Kobe is doing business as normal. I daresay it'll probably make itself into a victim, a showcase for earthquakeproof archetecture like Hiroshima is for world peace and disarmament.

Dave Aldwinckle

editorializing from Sapporo, Japan.

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