25 years after the great Hanshin earthquake, the SDF is highly valued and volunteering continues to be strong

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25 years after the great Hanshin earthquake, the SDF is highly valued and volunteering continues to be strong

KOBE – While Kobe commemorates the 25th anniversary of the great Hanshin earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people, the city and region are trying to remind younger generations of the past devastation and the importance of disaster preparedness, even if they face difficult questions about their future.

Kobe’s Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial / Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution, a museum that opened in 2002, is designed to commemorate what happened on that day on January 17, 1995.

From videos and dioramas depicting widespread devastation just minutes after the 5:46 a.m. quake to reproductions of devastated streets and personal belongings left behind by the dead, the museum is a tour de force.

But perhaps the most striking aspect is that visitors have the opportunity to meet with volunteer museum staff who have survived the quake and learn how it affected their lives – and how they hope for the future of the region.

“I woke up around 5:00 am on the day of the quake and went outside to pick up my newspaper,” said Shinichi Saito, who was then a Kobe City official.

“I was on my futon and read the newspaper when the quake at 5:46 a.m. triggered a tremor – about 12 seconds later, it said. But just before the tremor, there were a few flashes of light, like lightning, and then a loud sound that sounded like a drum bang. “

The neighborhoods in Kobe are burning after the great Hanshin earthquake on January 17, 1995 shook the city and its surroundings and killed more than 6,400 people. | KYODO

Saito and his wife were lucky enough to avoid serious injuries despite the damage to their home. He made his way to the Higashinada Ward Office and started working on bailouts to find out where to put those who had been evacuated and in need of protection.

He was also entrusted with the cruel responsibility of finding a place where the bodies of the dead can be kept safely.

The 7.3 magnitude earthquake, which peaked at 7 on the Japanese earthquake intensity scale, claimed 6,434 lives, over 43,000 injured and more than 316,000 evacuees. Almost a quarter of a million buildings were badly damaged or destroyed.

The Hanshin Expressway is on its side after being overthrown by the Kobe earthquake on January 17, 1995 KYODO

In the hours that followed, power was turned off, telephones and fax machines were virtually inoperable, and critical roads and traffic infrastructure were damaged or destroyed. The unprecedented scale of the disaster overwhelmed Japan’s rule, which was looking for a quick bailout for days.

Reports from Japanese officials calling for Swiss dog rescue teams to be quarantined first while people were imprisoned or dying made headlines internationally as local authorities fought.

“Only about 20 percent of the prisoners rescued were actually rescued by public authorities (police, fire and self-defense),” said a 2010 Kobe city report on the quake. “The remaining 80 percent were saved by citizens who had neither special rescue equipment nor had been trained. The police and fire department not only had limited labor, but also had to perform other various operations, including maintaining security, traffic control, fire fighting, and emergency transportation, as well as rescue operations. “

One of the lasting legacies of the Kobe disaster was the change in Japan’s national laws and organizational structure, which later enabled the self-defense forces to respond more quickly to natural disasters.

When the quake broke out, SDF units in nearby Itami were not deployed until the governor of Hyogo Prefecture received approval from Tokyo – a process that saved rescuers valuable time.

A ship of the Maritime Self-Defense Force is anchored in the port of Higashi-Kobe off Kobe after the great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake on January 19, 1995. | KYODO

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s government was stunned by its slow response, and the use of SDF units for disaster relief efforts was described by the media as politically controversial. However, a January 1994 cabinet survey found that 26.4 percent of those surveyed had a good picture of the SDF, 50.4 percent said they had no bad picture, and only 1.9 percent expressly said they had a bad picture To have picture. When asked about the SDF’s primary purpose, 48.9 percent said they were protecting the country from external threats. 23.8 percent said their most important task was to provide help in times of disaster.

Until 2018, after years of sending SDFs to disaster areas, their presence was considered normal. This year, a similar Cabinet Office survey found that 36.7 percent of respondents had a good picture of the SDF, and 53.8 percent said their image was pretty good.

When the earthquake hit, the ground self-defense units in Himeji also set off for Kobe, over 100 km away. They have been delayed by blocked roads and traffic jams, but also by the lack of an effective system to quickly insert them into disaster areas. This experience would eventually lead to the establishment of a cabinet-level information gathering system and new government posts, including the post of the Minister of State for Disaster Management.

Another direct consequence of the quake in Hanshin was the increase in volunteering by individuals in times of disaster – a trend that has now become firmly established, which was observed last year after the typhoons Faxai and Hagibis.

In the first year after January 17, 1995, nearly 1.4 million volunteers came to the Kobe region from other parts of Japan and abroad. These efforts would result in the establishment of numerous non-governmental organizations and non-profit self-help groups across the country and in 1998 a new law to promote charitable activities.

A volunteer student distributed evacuation cards outside a train station in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture on January 24, 1995, KYODO

One of these groups was the NGO Collaboration Center for Hanshin Earthquake Rehabilitation, which is located near the Shinkaichi station in Kobe – one of the areas most affected by the quake. The center sends volunteers to other parts of the country when a disaster strikes and works with NGOs and NPOs abroad to provide assistance through a separate organization called Citizens against Overseas Disaster Emergency.

Ryota Yorimasa, head of the NGO collaboration center, was just 6 years old when the quake hit. 1995 was called the first year of the volunteer era.

“Many people in Japan used to associate volunteering with group or organizational volunteering, such as the work of the Red Cross,” he said. “But we saw how many people came to Kobe to volunteer … and the great Hanshin earthquake changed the perception of what a volunteer is.”

Local efforts to encourage more volunteering continue today. Last year, the Hyogo Prefectural Government announced that it would fund a program to provide groups of at least five Hyogo volunteers who want to help in disaster-stricken areas in Japan with up to 200,000 yen.

Applicants must be at least 20 years old, reside in Hyogo, and do not belong to a group whose purpose is religious, political, economic, or related to organized crime. The money can be used to cover transportation and accommodation costs. However, there are limits to how much can be spent on both a day. The group can only apply for funding once per financial year.

The prefecture announced last week that 50 groups had already used the program to step up relief efforts related to Typhoon Hagibis, which damaged much of Honshu in October from torrential rain and fatal floods. At the same time, Hyogo Governor Toshizo Ido announced earlier this month that the parent company, founded in 1995 to provide recovery funds, would be dissolved in the 2021 financial year because it had served its purpose. In the last quarter of a century, nearly 370 billion yen was spent on 116 different projects.

Today, with the Kobe region considering the quake, the need for better government civil protection policies, and the era of volunteering that triggered the disaster, the region is facing an uncertain future.

The quake caused an economic loss of 10 trillion yen, and the reconstruction took years, if not decades. But while there is little sign of the damage today, especially in Kobe, which has been completely remodeled, area officials are concerned about how the local economy can be strengthened.

Unlike neighboring countries like Osaka and Kyoto, Kobe has benefited little from the influx of foreign tourists in recent years and does not have the competitive infrastructure to attract visitors that other regions have invested in: converting Kobe Airport into an international facility. This year, in particular, is said to be a good time for this.

“The basic question for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo is whether people from overseas can only arrive at Haneda, Narita and Kansai airports. If there is a problem at one of these airports, we could consider temporary (international) flights to Kobe Airport, ”said Ido earlier this month.

“In view of the long-term situation, there is also some movement at Kansai Airport to increase the number of (annual) take-offs and landings from 230,000 to 300,000,” he added. “When Kansai Airport has 300,000 takeoffs and landings, the number of flights to Kobe Airport and its internationalization needs to be discussed.”

An exhibition at the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial / Institute for Civil Protection and Human Renewal shows how it was on the day when the earthquake struck Kobe and the surrounding area on January 17, 1995 ERIC JOHNSTON

This type of conversation in Kobe is not new, but the tourism boom in Japan has significantly increased local residents’ desire for their own international airport and more visitors. A video about the reconstruction of Kobe ends in the earthquake museum, in which the narrator expresses the hope that more people will visit him. But that raises a more fundamental question that Kobe residents continue to ask 25 years after the killer quake.

“The port of Kobe appears to have recovered from the quake,” said Saito, the former city official. “But the question is, what’s next? This is a different question than how to reconstruct. “

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