(sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Thu, 30 Jan 1997)

What follows is an article that Fukuzawan Reporter Mike Z FAXed me this evening (thanks, Mike), and I'll type it up for everyone's consumption. It is significant because it shows the holes in the system over here that are filled in with hubris, then glossed over with nonreporting.

Three years ago, January 17, 1994, a major earthquake struck California, killing enough and causing various bridges and flyovers to collapse. In response, the Japanese bureaucracy, particularly Kensetsushou, smugly and PUBLICLY said (hell, even *I* saw it on the evening news)--that "this would be impossible in Japan" (nippon de wa arienai).

Exactly one year to the day later, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, killing far more people and conflagrating the rest. And, infuriatingly, nobody really owned up or took responsibility for the shoddy rescue efforts or faulty infrastructure.

With enough time the contrast in treatment comes clear. As of January 1997, one would hardly know there had ever been an earthquake in California--roads are back up and people's lives, from what I've heard, are back to normal. Have been for quite some time.

But not in Kobe, according to this article. It really makes you wonder if the system here is simply doomed to mediocrity (meaning it was never really designed to answer the needs of its citizens), or is actually starting to break down behind a media coverup (no article I saw in the vernacular press commemorating Kobe's second anniversary even came close to depicting this). Read on and decide for yourself:




Published: Monday, January 20, 1997 Section: Front, San Jose Mercury News, Page 1A

BY MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER, Mercury News Tokyo Bureau

"I never thought I would live this way," 62-year-old Kojiro Nakata said as he slid open the aluminum door to his home--an 11-by-20-foot metal crate. "It's as hot as an ironing board in the summer. Now, the cold winds come up right through the floor mat."

On a treeless, lunar mound of rocky landfill and lost hopes, Nakata displayed what little is left of his life, two years after a 7.2 earthquake killed 6,300 people and destroyed 100,000 homes: three small wooden chests of drawers, a low Formica table, an electric carpet to warm the floor, a television, a refrigerator and an orange life preserver he found washed up one day while walking on the bach. His 500 or so neighbors are no better off.

"We survived the hardships after World War II, but it's as if we've been forgotten about in the rebuilding," Nakata explained as he leaned down to show how he used rags and newspapers to seal drafty gaps between his window and the floor. "Tokyo people don't know what it's like here. It seems as if the property comes first and the people come last."

At 5:46 a.m. Jan 17, 1995, the worst earthquake to strike urban Japan in 70 years left 300,000 people homeless. Today, 70,000 people like Nakata still have no permanent homes and have received little or no government aid to help them rebuild their shattered lives, while commercial property downtown is being rebuilt.

But more than just Kobe collapsed with the Great Hanshin Earthquake, as it is called here. Nationwide, the disaster toppled the Japanese people's self-confidence and certitude in their unique government an social system, a partnership that created so much economic wealth so quickly, but responded so miserably in a pinch.

Before the earthquake, Japan was a society where able bureaucrats solved national problems, communities took care of their own, and little visible gap seemed to exist between the nation's rich and poor. All that changed after Kobe.

"As a symbol, Kobe was very important," said Haruo Shimada, a Keio University economics professor who wrote a book about the crisis. "It demonstrated the failure of Japanese government policy to keep up with environmental changes and challenges. We learned that we had no system for civil security. We have a security system for international crises, but for defense of people against natural hazards, it simply was not there."


Others argue that the deepening social crisis the Japanese seem to be feeling now--rising debts, a series of scandals among powerful and once-lionized bureaucrats, and deep alienation among young people--began with the government's bungled response to the Kobe quake and accelerated after its muddled response to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system two months later.

"I feel strongly that since the (Kobe) earthquake, things are going in the wrong direction," Rokusuke Ei, a song- and script-writer, said at a recent concert. "The world is getting more and more strange, it seems."

"It's so sad to say, but Japan is a rich country but at the moment it's not a country for human beings," said Makoto Oda, a writer and political activist.

His patience exhausted, Oda organized a citizens' petition drive that this week will ask the Japnese Diet to pass a law giving 5 million yen (about $44,000) to quake victims whose homes were destroyed. It represents the first time in recent history that Japanese citizens have directly petitioned their parliament, where laws are almost exclusively initiated by the government.

Tired of waiting for city leaders to finish plans for an elaborate reconstruction, hundreds of Kobe residents have taken matters into their own hands, rebuilding without offical permits. But now, their newly-reconstructed homes may be torn down for violating as-yet-unwritten zoning laws.

"Who can wait for the government to make up its mind?" said Matsue Miyata, whose apartment building was one of the few that survived in the hard-hit Nagata ward of the city. There, a few interim structures made of fiberglass, along with the din of jackhammers and drills, have replaced the bustle of a vibrant neighborhood. Because Miyata's surviving building may violate new zoning codes, the city may force her to demolish it.


This industrial port city of 1.5 million people now possesses the half-realism of a Hollywood back lot. Freshly paved main streets beckon with gleaming high-rises and neon-bright department stores. Pedestrians walk briskly through the commerical heart, their packages and briefcases held tightly in the January cold. Yet just a block or two behind the downtown facades, bleak, vacant and mutilated neighborhoods struggle to find a future.

Old, lonely women live alone in city parks, bundled in heavy sweaters. Families have taken shelter on the vacant floors of office buildings. A community of 50 cooks and eats its meals in a canvas tent heated by kerosene stoves. And people like Nakata and his wife, Toki, try to create normalcy in makeshift trailer camps, incongruously sandwiched between an amusement park's Ferris wheel and the storage yard for Kobe's busy container port.

Unlike the United States, Japan has no system in place to respond to non-military emergencies. It has no federal disaster agency that can open floodgates of money to help victims or coordinate responses among bureaucratic agencies. The govenment cannot even declare a "state of emergency."

So fragile is the consensus on the role of the Japnese military in civil affairs that then-Prime Minsiter Tomiichi Murayama waited 22 hours before sending troops to help search for victims in Kobe. "People were suffering and Kobe was burning, but still the troops were not sent," Shimada said. "That government simply could not run the country."


Though Japan is frequently rocked by earthquakes, relief agencies proved unable to respond spontaneously to a disaster for which they had not been properly trained. Hundreds trapped under debris died because firefighters could not reach them. Red Cross workers forgot to bring tents for the city's 220,000 homeless. Soldiers refused aid to residents crying for help because they were located outside their assigned sectors. Rescue dogs sent from Europe were detained at customs because of animal-quarantine regulations.

While millions of yen was rased to help quake victims, most of the money sat in bank accounts for 18 months while the Red Cross and government officials bickered over how to distribute it. No government program exists to give grants to homeowners to rebuild their destroed property. And the government consistently maintains it has no responsibility to compensate victims for property lost during natural disasters. When those devaastated by the quake ask for help, they are met with a standard response from bureaucrats:

"There is no precedent."

As a result, while people like Nakata hold little hope of getting back into their homes, the once-toppled highways bustle with trucks, and railroad trains rocket right on schedule across rebuilt elevated track.

In a sociey wehre shikata ga nai--it cannot be helped--is a common response to many social problems, infomal neighborhood networks usually look after the elderly and infirm. But with neighbors dispersed--to makeshift shelters, the homes of relatives in distant cities or new neighborhoods far away--those networks were ripped apart, and it was easy for the destitute and elderly to fall through the social safety net. At least 121 of those living in temporary housing have died.


"This earthquake was beyond the capacity of people to care for themselves. They needed a support system that just wasn't there," said Akihiko Nomura, chief producer of FM YY, a Kobe radio station that supports Vietnamese, Korean and other international residents. Nestled between the sea and a ridge of low mountains, Kobe was among the first Japanese ports opened to foreign ships. Many foreign factory workers lived in the Nagata ward of factories and old homes, which was particularly devastated by the quake.

Officials acknowledge that their emergency plans--drawn up to deal with a nuclear emergency or an invasion--did not adequately respond to a natural disaster. Others say the scope of the disaster simply overwhelmed the ability of government to respond. But local officals pronounce their reconstruction program an unqualified success.

"Surely you would not expect us to reimburse people if they cannot present us with receipts," said Takeo Ohara, director of the reconstruction-promotion division for the Hyogo prefecture. "We are on schedule to put up 125,000 houses within three years. But we have no funds to help private homewoners who want to build on their own." As a result, those who have the money to rebuild their homes have done so, but have received only minimal compensation. "Kobe used to be one big town, where everyone was well off," said Kazuo Tsutsumi, a bluegrass guitarist who spent nearly $40,000 repairing his home but received less than $3,000 in aid. "Now we are divided into rich and poor. For those without money, there is no way to get over the hump."

Friday, to commemorate the anniversary, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, members of the imperial family and dozen of Japan's top political leaders made a pilgrimage to Kobe to mourn the dead.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// ARTICLE ENDS

Mike Z noted to me in a private email later that the last line of his report, which said something like:

"Hashimoto will not visit the temporary housing where Nakata lives."

ended up on the editorial cutting-room floor. This is tragic, since it not only leaves the last paragraph dangling for a purpose, but also prevents Mike from tying everything together re government indifference towards the truly afflicted.


To all of you down in supercrowded Tokyo and Yokohama: that big centennial earthquake is probably going to happen soon. When it does, I hope that rescue and rebuilding all go well. But if the lessons of Kobe are any guide, it looks as if we simply cannot rely on our domineering bureaucrats to either do, or to have done, their jobs.

Dave Aldwinckle

Safer in Sapporo?


Date: Thu, 30 Jan 1997

Thanks for the article Dave - it hits home.

I've been on a personal crusade to ensure that my family, friends and business partners have earthquake plans and supplies. There is an overwhelming attitude that if you just don't think about it, it won't happen. I've copied and distributed embassy registration papers and preparation guides, developed an office emergency plan and "telephone tree", including names, address and phone numbers of all next of kin for foreign and Japanese personnel.

Our backpacks and supplies are ready. We are registered. Shoes under the bed. Hope you are safer in Sapporo. Its terribly clear that we are on our own if the big one hits.

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