2005 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media.
All Rights Reserved.
The day Japan stood still
By Todd Crowell
Global Beat Syndicate
SEATTLE—A sense of complacency compounded by incompetence. Bureaucratic bungling and a lack of clear lines of authority. A sluggish response leading to a feeling of betrayal. New Orleans in 2005? No, Kobe, Japan in 1995.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is tempting to make comparisons with the tsunami that devastated the coasts of Sumatra and Sri Lanka less than a year ago. But fearsome as the death toll was, the disaster hit a region that was essentially an economic backwater.
Kobe makes a better comparison because, like New Orleans, it is a modern, industrialized city and an important port with a population of about 1.5 million—three times larger than New Orleans. Now that 10 years have passed since the January 17, 1995 Kobe earthquake, it provides a preview of what to expect.
Japan prides itself being prepared for earthquakes, which are common throughout the archipelago (though not so much in the area around Kobe). Japan spends a fortune on earthquake prediction technology. Every year on Sept. 1 (anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake) the country holds earthquake drills.
Yet the authorities were caught completely flat-footed when a 7.2 scale earthquake struck, killing 6,433 people, injuring about 40,000 and making 300,000 people homeless—some for years. Damage exceeded $100 billion, a full 2 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.
The government’s response was sluggish and confused. It took Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama nearly 24 hours to decide whether to dispatch troops to Kobe (though looting was fairly low). No clear lines of authority for disaster relief had been established to ensure effective response.
Nobody complained about the performance of Japan’s equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency because Japan had no equivalent of FEMA (still does not to the best of my knowledge). The government could not even declare a state of emergency.
Japanese customs officials held up specially trained search dogs from Germany at the airports because of quarantine rules. Some of the most effective disaster relief was performed by the Japanese gangsters, known as the yakuza: they had a national network and clear lines of authority. Other private companies, such as Seven-Eleven also provided help.
“[The experience] demonstrates 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.”
Drop the world “Japanese” and you would think it is somebody talking about Katrina. In fact, it was an assessment from Haruo Shimada of Keio University, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News about four years after the earthquake. “People were suffering, but still no troops were sent.”
Kobe came back, of course. Water, electricity and telephone services were fully restored in six months. Railroad service resumed eight months after the earthquake. Port facilities were about 80 percent repaired at the end of the year. In a year, Japan’s GDP had returned to the level prior to the quake.
Over the next three years, the national government spent over $58 billion rebuilding infrastructure, public facilities and public housing for the tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed. The Hanshin Expressway, whose collapse became the enduring emblem of the quake, was reopened a year and a half after the quake.
Nonetheless, two years after the quake 70,000 people were still living in Spartan temporary housing while more permanent accommodations were built. And although the government spent billions on public facilities, it balked at compensating individuals. The victims were dependent on insurance, family and charity.
As in New Orleans, the poorer neighborhoods suffered the most. In Kobe it was Nagata Ward, mostly a collection of individual wooden huts that caught fire and burned. One observer said the area looked like it was carpet-bombed after the quake. Four years later, some Ward residents were still living in container boxes.
It took 10 years for Kobe’s population to return to a pre-quake level. Most rebuilding has been completed; the homeless are now living in concrete apartment buildings, but the city permanently lost some container business to other ports. Kobe, it seems, will never really be the same.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Veteran Asia correspondent Todd Crowell comments frequently on Asian affairs at Asia Cable.
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