On January 17th, 1995, Japan was woken at 5:46am by its largest ever recorded earthquake. The Great Hanshin Earthquake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and lasted over 20 seconds. Its epicentre was Awaji Island, near the port city of Kobe.
According to official statistics, 5,472 people were killed, and over 400,000 were injured. Most of the death and destruction was not caused directly by the earthquake, but by the hundreds of fires which it caused.
Newer buildings had been built to withstand the seismic pressure, but many of the cities’ residential buildings were traditional wooden structures. They collapsed easily, trapping their occupants. Even if rescue crews had been able to reach them, the water supply was disabled.
Fire fighters watched helplessly as Kobe burned.
It could have been much worse. If the quake had hit an hour later, during the morning rush-hour, there would’ve been thousands of extra casualties. The Shinkansen line, which would have been carrying over 1,000 commuters, was damaged in 9 different places. Part of the Hanshin Expressway, built to withstand bigger earthquakes, was ripped apart.
Estimates of total economic damage vary, but the bill was at least $100 million.
Rescue was made more complicated by Kobe’s large Korean community, who were reluctant to accept official help. Many refused to allow police or fire fighters into their neighbourhoods. Their paranoia was understandable...
In 1923, after the Great Kanto Earthquake, several thousand Koreans were lynched by angry mobs, who falsely accused them of starting fires and poisoning the water supply. Those who fled to the authorities found no sanctuary, and they were massacred. The police killed 800 Korean students. There is evidence that this hysteria was deliberately provoked by the Ministry of Domestic Affairs, who gave bogus reports of Korean riots to the Japanese media.
The Koreans' lack of cooperation caused a large amount of unnecessary damage and death, mostly to Koreans. Some reports suggest that, in retaliation, the Japanese government refused to give aid to them. Immediate outcry from foreign media and aid workers forced them to scrap this stance.
Avoidable casualties were also caused by the inadequate official response. The authorities’ efforts were widely criticised as being slow and badly-coordinated. Japan’s initial refusal of foreign support was seen as a vain act of pride by a government unwilling to admit it couldn’t handle the problem alone.
Initial communications were slow, and severely understated the scale of the disaster. The Prime Minister (Tomiichi Murayama) didn’t obtain any information about the quake for 2 hours. The SDF (Special Defence Forces) weren’t dispatched to the disaster for another 2 hours, and the initial SDF team was only 170 troops.
The mass media played an important role in informing the public and generating support. However, in many cases, the facts were distorted. Newspaper photographs of victims in intensive care prompted thousands of volunteers to show up at medical centres where they weren’t needed.
The city of Kobe has been rebuilt, emerging from the wreckage as a modern, cosmopolitan city. Its economic output is greater than ever, although many of its older residents have been forced to move into the suburbs. Typical Japanese insurance policies don’t cover earthquakes, so many families lost everything.
The Hanshin Earthquake taught Japan some difficult lessons about disaster mitigation. The government used to rely heavily on expensive “earthquake-proof” buildings and infrastructure.
In the future, Japan will know sooner about an imminent earthquake, and more emphasis will be placed on rapid, co-ordinated relief. With a massive quake predicted for central Japan (Shizuoka) in the next 30 years, this preparedness may be tested very soon.