Lessons for Japan From Kobe Quake

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Lessons for Japan From Kobe Quake

There was plenty to learn after the Great Hanshin earthquake, David Edgington tells The Diplomat. Disaster response is the better for it.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quick to dispatch 100,000 personnel from the country’s Self-Defence Forces to the Sendai area following the massive quake on March 11. How did this response compare with that for the Kobe earthquake in 1995?

The earthquake in Kobe occurred about two years before the mass introduction of mobile phones and the internet, so there was a terrible disconnect between that part of Kansai and the decision makers in Tokyo. Under the protocols of that time, local government leaders—both for the city and the prefecture—had to request assistance from the SDF in the event of an emergency. The SDF were in Himeji and Kure, so they were close by, but they couldn’t take the initiative by themselves and had to be ordered into action by Tokyo.

Also at that time, Japan had a socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, who was very reticent about calling the SDF in. So there was a terrible situation in that it was almost four days before there was a build-up of emergency rescue people from outside. All this while Kobe was so devastated that the ambulance crews, police and fire brigades from local cities and the surrounding areas were completely overwhelmed by the earthquake and the fires that followed.

There were reports at the time that with the official response so being so slow, the yakuza (Japanese gangsters) were among the first on the scene offering assistance.

Yes, the yakuza are very strong in Kobe and they have their own parallel distribution and logistics networks, so they were on the ground the day after. The earthquake was on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday they were going around in their trucks in strategic locations handing out ramen, sushi packs and rice balls.

Are there any indications Japan has learned much from the Kobe quake that it has been able to apply to this month’s quake?

I think so. The next test for Japan’s emergency response system following the Kobe earthquake actually came in October 2004. There was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake up in the hilly area of Niigata. The geography was very different from Kobe—it was rural Japan. Fewer people lost their lives, and there was no tsunami. However, there were a lot of collapsed buildings, and remote rural villages were isolated because of the landslides.

In response, the SDF moved into one of the towns, Ojiya, and a coordination centre was set up on the day following the event. Helicopters were used to fly in food and to rescue villagers, and eventually to help in the repair of roads. So there was a learning system going on and protocols had changed. The SDF was quicker to respond, and there was better communication with Tokyo about the damage, while units from outside the area were brought in.

Back in the days of Kobe, there were no clear protocols on how one local government area could call on the ambulances, police and fire brigades from adjoining and local districts. Those systems were changed after Kobe, and there were more disaster manuals available and more training exercises and so on. And because of the remoteness of those hilly areas in Niigata, there must have been some learning that would have helped in the immediate response to the earthquake this month on the Sanriku coast.

I think Japan now has good procedures for earthquakes and for overcoming tsunamis, and reasonable procedures for overcoming nuclear accidents. The problem of course has been that we’ve seen all three at the same time.

The Sendai and Kobe quakes occurred in two very different areas. How do you expect to see the recovery and reconstruction proceed this time?

Japanis a planning culture, so every local government is mandated to plan for disasters—there’s a five-year rolling plan system. So people are told to shelter in school gymnasiums and other designated community centres, and those are used as points for distributing emergency water, food and medical aid. Then, as we started to see this week, the next stage is to get those people out into temporary accommodation, which means purpose-built barrack type houses, with two rooms. Some areas are also starting to get electricity back. In the Sanriku area, the towns are very remote and are connected by small, windy, rugged, east-west connecting roads, which are bad at the best of times. And because of the landslides following the earthquake, they will take some time to be repaired. So geography is a very important factor in recovery efforts.

In Kobe, the real problem was where to put the temporary housing. Every sports field, every open park, every unused reclaimed island in Osaka Bay was commissioned for temporary housing. The problem was that the Ministry of Finance wasn’t buying private land for this purpose, so it had to be on government land—either national or local.

An awful lot of people found themselves scattered, some as far away as Hiroshima, so there were also social issues about communities being broken up. Many of those affected were seniors, and this was a real issue after the disaster—the vulnerability of seniors. Those who are placed in temporary barrack housing can usually expect to be there for two years or more. The story in Kobe was that the last people to be taken out of temporary housing were taken out in 1999—four years after the earthquake.

Up on the coastal plain where the Tohoku earthquake struck, in contrast, there are probably more degrees of freedom to find large flat areas for temporary housing.

How long was it before Kobe could start to get back on track?

It took about six months to get all the rubble out, with the government commissioning the very large construction firms in Tokyo and Osaka to do that work. And then the city’s infrastructure was gradually built, with the private railways coming back within about six months. After that, a little later, came larger infrastructure—Highway No. 1, which goes through Kobe from east to west, took about two years to rebuild. The port took about two years to rebuild. But the economy recovered much more slowly, and they also had to build public housing for the large number of people who just couldn’t find their way back into private housing because they’d lived in old wooden houses that had been destroyed. The city had to pick up the tab to get people into mass-produced, high rise public housing.

How keen were people to return and rebuild?

In the temporary housing, people wanted to get back to their original neighbourhoods as soon as possible, but the mayor of Kobe back then, Kazutoshi Sasayama, was an urban planner by training and worked his way up the bureaucracy in the city before becoming a politician. As a result, he had a very strong sense of what the priority for different projects should be, and he identified a number of priorities for urban renewal in a crowded city like Kobe.

A lot of the areas in Kobe had been rebuilt very quickly after World War II in the late 1940s and early 1950s with minimal road space, so it was very tricky to get emergency vehicles in and out. In fact, you can point to areas in Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama that are still like that. So under the Japanese system, he designated some areas for urban renewal, which meant changing the single story landscape of these older neighbourhoods into high-rises with open space around them. But people rejected these ideas because it wasn’t culturally sensitive or meaningful to their sense of place.

The population of Kobe dropped by about 10 percent in 1995 as many left the area—some to stay with friends and relatives, while others were relocated. That 1995 population only fully recovered 10 years later. So the mayor and the governor of Hyogo Prefecture drew up a number of projects that they asked the national government to fund, and they pretty much got everything they wanted in a package called the Phoenix Plan.

Were some communities in Kobe hit harder than others?

There’s what I call the geography of crisis in Kobe. The combination of the fault line running right up and down the east-west downtown corridor, plus the fact that this was the centre of the wooden housing, created the perfect storm. So there was no area that was spared—everyone was vulnerable. In terms of people who got into the housing market first, it was simply those that had funds. In the Japanese system prior to Kobe, the only guarantee was that they would agree to rebuild the infrastructure—it was thought the injection of money into rebuilding roads and harbours and ports would boost the local economy and people would recover by themselves.

Japanis also notorious for not having any household insurance system for earthquakes. If you have a fire that’s one thing, but if the fire is caused by an earthquake then it’s a different story. The only thing the government did differently with Kobe—because it was an election year—was to borrow heavily in the bond market and promise money to the local governments. So the local governments in these situations make the plans, and then they go cap-in-hand to Tokyo and ask for funding. So Sasayama came up with the biggest shopping list ever—including an airport—and got just about everything he asked for.

Any other thoughts on the Tohoku earthquake?

My sense is that the news will become grimmer and grimmer. How does Japanese society deal with so many missing people?

But there were two things that occurred to me immediately last week. The first was that Tokyo dodged a bullet. If that size of earthquake had been just around the corner from the Boso Peninsula, we would be looking at a very different type of catastrophe. And I was also intrigued by Prime Minister Kan channeling Franklin D. Roosevelt talking about Japan’s New Deal.

David Edgington is Associate Professor of Economic Geography at the University of British Columbia and author of ‘Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity.’