A travelogue about an ongoing problem in Japan's system: its inability to take care of its own citizens in the aftermath of a disaster.


(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, Friends, and UFJ May 31, 1999)

I just got back from an AJET Conference in Kobe, a place of great personal significance to me. Last time I was down there was between February 14 and 28, 1995--an indelible time for Kansai due to the Great Hanshin Earthquake--when I took a ferry down from Sapporo to volunteer in the relief efforts. My primary motivation, other than the Eagle-Scout glow I get from volunteering, was anger: I was furious at the callous incompetence of the Japanese government, where an untouched Tokyo spent its time wringing its hands about how to send in the JSDF, yet spent its time rebuffing emergency funds and material help from overseas (famously, turning away US aircraft carriers with water and shelter, and sniffer dogs from Switzerland--which eventually got through but were held up in quarantine for days), moreover ridiculing the US government attache in Osaka for daring to meddle in Japan's internal affairs (!!!). All the while people were dying--trapped in the rubble and perishing from exposure or explosion.

Not only were various ministries botching the aftermath, the government agency which set Kobe up for the spike, by creating conditions that would bottleneck relief efforts, was the Ministry of Construction. Essentially Japan's largest employer, powerful MoC's corrupt practices and lax enforcement of building standards created an inaccessible infrastructure, most famously the fragile highway flyovers, at this time of dire need. And weren't they hubric about it beforehand! One year to the day before the Hanshin Earthquake was the LA Quake, with its own famous collapsed highway flyovers, and toppling things off on the TV news were smarmy MoC bureaucrats rubbing salt into the situation by saying, condescendingly, "This would never happen in Japan" (Nippon de wa arienai koto da) in a great rush of Yamato pride. Thus one year later Japan's second bubble, this time the egoistic instead of the economic, would burst--at a cost of over 6000 lives and displacement of many thousands more.

(see http://www.voicenet.co.jp/~davald/essays.html#kobequake for more substantiation of this tirade)

But here's my current indictment: five years after LA one hears nothing about infrastructural or displacement problems. Four years later over here, however, Japan's systemic fault lines remain--visible in the city government of Kobe's treatment of earthquake victims.

To be sure, as I walked around last weekend I saw that things had improved. The temporary government-sponsored hutches I peered into on Port Island were vacant, and business-centers have become visibly reupholstered. Hardly a landmark remained from the crumbing cityblocks I once helped service in Sannomiya, and even the Ijinkan quarters in Kitano have become tourist traps again. But if one visits the alleyways and other crannies, it becomes apparent that problems continue, and this time due to the local government.

My old friend Mike Fox, a frequent reporter on Japan's miscarriages of justice, took me to a shanty town, where I would learn how a self-seeking Kobe city is stretching the definition of "disaster relief", creating economic advantages for itself at the expense of its citizens.


The park is a wedge of land between a sunken river and a wide road, culminating in an intersection which is no more than 100 meters from the government offices of Suma-ku, or from the police station which handled the junior highschooler who beheaded a mentally-infirm child a year or two ago and left the crown at the school gate. The neighborhood is very Kansai--musty most of the year but with hardy flowers and trees brightening up the blue-collar, rusty with train lines nearby providing the hum of a city, and suitably summed up as dingy but with lively feel of a Shitamachi. Yet overshadowing everything are towering and expensive-looking apartment complexes, boasting the crescents of Kobe city government construction, which overlook the tent-village compound.

When entering the compound, the first thing one notices is how clean and organized it is. There are no bottles strewn about or drying clothes hanging off the bushes, no people sleeping rough as can be seen around Osaka Castle, no atmosphere of shame or reek of urine. Not forlorn, but welcoming of company--it in fact wants your attention. Nestled between the trees and cozying up to the slides and swingsets are a bunch of one-storey prefab houses, the chief one painted in swirling colors reminiscent of Barcelona Olympics posters. The dwellings are interconnected by tarps--the ubiquitous plastic "blue sheets"--which contain about seven extended families in perhaps two dozen 8-tatami rooms. Windows are open wafting out katori senkou (mosquito repellent) and home cooking, children's voices compete with radios for airspace, and men are outside, having a Sunday beer or stronger, busily painting signs for another high-profile festival next week. These families have been squatting here for four years and three months, and despite living via water fountains, portajohns, and tenuous links to the power grid, do not seem to be downbeat. They have the strength of self-justication fueling their self-reliance, and they intend to continue squatting until their demands are met.

I was interested to find out what exactly their demands were, and I would get them in a very no-nonsense manner. Mike introduced me to his friend, Mr Tanaka Kengo (real name), chairman of and spokesman for the Shita-Nakajima Tento-Mura Jichikai. He is a wiry man with hair to match, age approaching fifties, who focusses on you with eyes that size up your heart and degree of humanity in seconds. For he has seen, explained, and appealed to all kinds of people, and exercises the patient charisma only those rare-birds who know deep down they are right have. He and one of his older truck-driver friends, who bantered in a nearly-indecipherable Kansai-ben, were very nice to talk with--because they were not interested in how foreign we were, but rather in communicating with us their cause as effectively as possible. To aid that end, Mike and I pulled out a bunch of beer and cup sakes we had procured from the local beer machine, Mrs Tanaka brought out nattou gyouza, inago, and seasoned tomatoes, and we got down to business.

Mr Tanaka brought out a very handsome 150-page glossy book entitled, "Hito to Hito o Tsunagu Koto Kara" ("What Happens When People Connect"), published June 1998, which was a collection of all his thorough local monthly newsletters describing the situation as it stood. He saved us a lot of time reading and told the story for the umpteenth time:

Once upon a time Mr Tanaka worked in a shoe factory, and returned home to a group of low-rise rented apartments on Japan National Railways land. It was quite a large plot (a few hectares) adjacent to the JR Takatori train maintenance factory plot which was several times bigger. January 17, 1995 saw both his occupation and abode disappear in a flash. The neighborhood took up temporary residence in this nearby park, as was normal in those days when people didn't trust City Hall (I believe this: I spent the night in a Burakumin tent city in 1995, and they too had refused to even vacate their rubble for fear of the government bulldozing and usurping their land in the name of "town planning"). Soon events would justify their suspicions and compel them not to move.

Eventually JR sold the factory and residential land, prime urban turf which had been long overdue for residential development, to the Kobe city government. It soon became clear what was probably going to be done with it. The rules from Tokyo, according to Mr Tanaka, go like this:

This is a crucial carrot. For now a very cash-strapped city government has strong economic incentives to get the previous occupants to scram and invite some developer to come in, particularly from the government-private hybrid venture capitalist "Dai-San Sector", and make this whole area flourish with some kind of amusement park or other crowd-drawer. This would pump money into the area, particularly into puny commuter JR Takatori station--which is probably why JR sold its land to the city in the first place.

This struck a nerve with me, for if any of you got through my two Nanporo Election essays last February and March (where our corrupt town mayor was voted out because he was trying to build a second superfluous golf course, using our tax money to found his company; more on this in future essays) you might remember how a Dai-San Sector company was about to bankrupt our town. As probably the most easily-abused economic stimulators, the Dai-San Sector concept is an awful device--for not only does it encourage corruption, it also perpetuates the Japanese bubble-keizai mentalities--to the point, according to NHK, where two in three of all D3S projects are hopelessly in the red, and one third are legally insolvent or formally bankrupt. One mention of D3S and I knew what Mr Tanaka was saying deserved to be reported to a wider audience.

So the city government, sarcastically nicknamed "Kobe Inc.", has been relocating people "temporarily" and clearing them out of prime real estate. Thousands of people have been sent as far afield as Hokkaido, like Kosovo refugees, and provided housing. Others who were landowners were given plots a dozen or so tsubo larger than before, but on the other side of the mountains. And a Deliberation Council on city planning handed down a decision that once residents accepted residence elsewhere, all claims on their original locations were considered void. People were welcome to return to the Kobe area on their own power and move into whatever is available, but the bottom line was that the city was not concerned with returning people to their previous status quo. Kobe's well-reported civil complaints about bureaucratic strongarming in city planning, and deaf ears to community concerns, back this up.

"The fact is," Mr Tanaka reiterated often, "this is government without heart. They don't care about the weak, the little people, the public. It's like what the government usually does--for example, building playgrounds without ever asking the people who use them, the kids, how they would like them. So here again we're handed something and told to accept it without ever being consulted with. They were going to do it with our former residences, and that is not what we wanted. We wanted to go back to life the way it was, and if the city was going to do planning only for their own benefit, well, we decided that we weren't going to budge."

So on they squatted in Shimo Nakajima Koen, and their case attracted nationwide attention. Photos on the prefab walls showed Doi Takako, then-leader of the Japan Socialist Party, on the premises in 1996 attending a fact-finding mission with another dozen Diet members. Unfortunately, no action at the national government level was taken. Meanwhile the bureaucrats decided to make things rough. They declared occupancy of the park illegal and the residents ineligable for relief financial assistance (reason: they have no official address). It was also discovered that some of the local bureaucrats were supportive, advising the parkers on how to claim other financial benefits, and the former were transferred out of the way. And attrition has taken its toll--over half of the families, no longer happy campers, have moved on into modern facilities on the other side of the mountains. There were many other things said, but much of it was lost in my faulty Kansai dialect filters. The point was these people have been fighting City Hall for nearly half a decade, and it shows no sign of letting up for the forseeable future.

The next step? Mr Tanaka was pursuing a two-tiered strategy, with enjoyable matsuri festivals every six months or so to keep up public awareness, lots of noise in public when necessary, and quiet procedural applications to try and buy up the land they were once living upon. Where the money will come from, they don't know, for Mr Tanaka is out of work and will probably remain so, but not asking leaves them open for bureaucratic claims of residents being uncooperative. We drained our beers and left the very cheery family with our best wishes.

To be honest, I walked home from this case with a number of reservations; with limited exposure to the issue and input from one side of the dispute, with lots of holes in my understanding of the problem, so this case is by no means clean-cut to me yet.

But I can say one thing--the central issue here is this: What is the aim of "disaster relief"? "Keeping people alive" is simply not enough--for often they have lost everything and cannot rebuild. "Getting them back on their feet" is difficult to quantify--and it invites abuses of the nature described above (like removing them with faraway sweetheart deals just because they have prime real estate).

I would prefer to define relief as "the act of restoring victims' lives back to the way they were before the disaster", and done in a manner which is satisfactory to the recipient. Hey, these people aren't asking for a palace to house them--they just want to go back to where they came and get some financial assistance to rebuild. That to me does not sound at all unreasonable. The fact that the government as greater designs on that area should be immaterial, and it probably would be immaterial in a system more responsive to the will of the people.

But as we have seen time and time again, the Japanese bureaucracy generally looks out for its own best interest. This can be claimed of any government, but the problem is that there is no strong legal system here to provide a check and balance. For Japan's courts are not sufficiently developed to be autonomous of government gerrymandering, not structured to be properly impartial or protective of the powerless, nor even powerful enough to enforce its own decisions should the powerful disregard them. And as a result, given the quarter-century-old Minamata Mercury Poisoning Case, the decades-old Yamada Etsuko Framed-Murder Case, the more recent The Asahikawa University Illegal Dismissal Case, or any number of others in Mike's and my mental rolladex, almost all cases that come before the courts are ruled in favor of the government.

For indeed, when those Ministry of Construction fatheads chirruped in 1994, "What happened in LA couldn't happen in Japan", they were right. Given what a hash Kobe has made of things, more's the pity.

Dave Aldwinckle

People are welcome of course to get in touch with Mr Tanaka's group directly and receive the same information I did. His book and further contacts are available by telephoning (078) 734-5305, FAX (078) 734-1333.

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Copyright 1999, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan