Remembering the Great Hanshin Earthquake

Today (17 January) is the anniversary of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake – also known as the Hanshin Awaji Daishinsai (Great Earthquake) or Kobe earthquake (阪神・淡路大震災). On that day I was in Sheffield, in the first year of doing my PhD – but it could have been very different.

A little over 24 months earlier, there had been a chance that my wife (girlfriend at the time) would transfer from being in Toyo-oka in Hyogo prefecture (close to Kinosaki onsen) to Kobe on the JET Programme. Had that happened, I would have quit JET and my position in Seto and tried to get a private English teaching job in Kobe. Had that had happened, we would have both been living in Kobe on 17 January 1995. But that wasn’t to be and so we returned to the UK at the end of our year on JET, with me starting my PhD about education and Prime Minister Nakasone at the University of Sheffield.

17 January 1995. 5:46 JST. The earthquake strikes. It was 21:46 GMT on 16 January. I didn’t see any news about the quake that night. I didn’t have access to email in my room. My wife phoned me the next morning and asked if I had seen the news. I still hadn’t. After the call, I immediately went back to my bedsit and checked the news. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The following is a summary of the key details are based on the summary on Wikipedia

It measured 6.9 on the moment magnitude scale and had a maximum intensity of 7 on the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale. The tremors lasted for approximately 20 seconds. The focus of the earthquake was located 17 km beneath its epicentre, on the northern end of Awaji Island, 20 km away from the centre of the city of Kobe.

Up to 6,434 people lost their lives; about 4,600 of them were from Kobe. Among major cities, Kobe, with its population of 1.5 million, was the closest to the epicentre and hit by the strongest tremors. This was Japan’s deadliest earthquake in the 20th century after the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, which claimed more than 105,000 lives.

I couldn’t stop and watch the news all morning as I had to go to a PhD training session. While I had a presentation prepared (all on paper as this was before PowerPoint) related to my work, the focus of questions was about the events in Japan. When I applied to Sheffield, I had considered doing a PhD related to earthquakes in Japan before fixing on my actual topic (thanks in large part to having seen the Japanese education system from the inside and being unsatisfied with many of the academic texts I had read about the Japanese education system). While earthquakes have never ended up being a main topic of my research – the issue of disaster response became a central theme in my research on the flight JL123 plane crash and the 3/11 disaster and other earthquakes come up in my research on disaster narratives (for example ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘) and also in my book Japan: The Basics.

My wife and I visited Kobe in 1996 and were amazed at a couple of things. First, the level of reconstruction that had already been completed. Second, the seemingly random nature of the earthquake with buildings that apparently had no problems standing next to vacant plots or close to buildings with large cracks in them. During that trip I also went on an earthquake simulator (in a car park outside Toyo-oka city hall) so I could experience the strength of the quake. The ‘room’ was a mock up of small table, at which I had to kneel, with a small kitchen and was perched on a small van. Once the ‘quake’ started (I was given no warning when this would be), I was to stand and turn off the imaginary cooker. However, once the simulation started, my only concern was not getting thrown off the back of the van and breaking my neck. The gas stayed firmly on as far I remember.

My next experience related to the quake happened some years later when I went to a ‘recreation’ of the quake at the Science Museum in London (it subsequently moved to the Natural History Museum). The scene was based upon one of the most used videos in the UK of the Hanshin Earthquake – the quake impacting the inside of a convenience store. The whole thing was so poor and I was so disgusted by it that I managed to find a way to bring this criticism into my book Shinkansen – which also discussed the impact of earthquakes on the shinkansen.

A few years later – I also discovered that the wife of one of my Japanese friends from high school had been in the car behind the bus in this infamous picture of the events of 17 January 1995.

After this, while I was working on my book Dealing With Disaster in Japan, I visited Kobe to look at the memorialisation of the earthquake to provide some additional context to how the JL123 is memorialised. These are some of the pictures that I took that day in 2009.

This picture was included in Dealing with Disaster in Japan (see also Photos in “Dealing With Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash”)- One of the memorials for the Great Hanshin Earthquake – this underground one, with a clear ceiling so that a water feature above can be seen, has the names of the victims listed around it

Unfortunately, too many people do now forget about the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the huge impact it had upon so many people, let alone the lives that it took away. Of course, some people were too young or not yet born in 1995 – but I find it astonishing how little people (even in Japanese studies) know about what happened in 1995.

Twice I have been in Kobe on 17 January as I often go to Japan in January for research or pastoral care trips, for example. The last time was the last time I was in Japan – just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t even realised that I was there for the anniversary until I got to Kobe on the 16th. This is a photograph that I took to mark the anniversary when I was there that time (the original picture without the text can be found on the post Photographing the Shinkansen: Shin-Kobe Station)

My thoughts are with all those who lost loved ones in 1995, those who lost their lives, and those who continue to be impacted by the earthquake in any way.

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