The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995

A part of Japan that is very dear to my heart is Kōbe, at the heart of Hyōgo-ken, and a stone’s throw away from Ōsaka and Kyōto. Kōbe, like many areas of Japan, is burdened yet indebted to the natural landscape. On the one hand, straddling three tectonic plates has meant that much of Japan is fertile, mountainous and beautiful. On the other, most parts of Japan are at a very high risk of being subjected to natural disasters.

Photo by mah_japan

Japan has used its technological advances to good use, providing a myriad of architectural advances to combat threats of earthquakes. Japan experiences low-intensity earthquakes on a very regular basis (at least one noticeable and approximately 400 detectable earthquakes every single day), and copes very well indeed. Unfortunately, no amount of technology could combat the occurrence at 5:46 in the morning of January 17th, 1995 which ultimately claimed 6,433 lives. All of Kōbe and many neighbouring cities were violently woken to 20 seconds of intense shuddering, moving the ground around 50 cm horizontally and up to a metre vertically. Roads, buildings, bridges and houses fell to the ground in an instant. Over two and a half million homes were without electricity and around 850,000 without gas; the broken gas pipes and loose electrical cables started fires all around the city claiming many lives almost instantaneously.

Aside from the immediate and wide-spread carnage, the effects lingered for many years. The Hanshin Expressway and large sections of the shinkansen track were rendered totally unusable for many months after the earthquake. Business closed down and the area suffered from large swathes of people re-locating. A once industrial and commercial powerhouse and thriving port-city dealing with over 10% of all shipments and accounting for about 4% of Japan’s overall industry was brought to its knees in an instant. This was a huge blow not only financially, but also to Japan’s morale and pride, already suffering from the economic stagnation. In short—Japan thought that it was better prepared for such a disaster to happen.

Photo by mah_japan

By the summer, telephone, gas, water and electricity supplies were all fully functioning in houses that remained intact. Work continued for many years to rectify the damage done and encourage people back to the city. Whole areas had to be re-developed from scratch. Arguably, the redevelopment has provided a great boost for Kōbe and its surrounding areas, with buildings and infrastructure that will stand the test of time, and whole areas redeveloped. This of course provides no solace for the millions of people whose family and friends were amongs the hundreds of thousands of people who were injured or worse still killed in the disaster. The memory lives on to this day.

If you are interested in finding out more, there is a visitors center built right on the Nojima fault, where you can see first hand the scale of land movement, get close to a full 140 meters of exposed fault line, and even have a go in an earthquake simulator (which, trust me, is worse than it looks!) The center is in the Hokudancho Earthquake Memorial Park and is well worth a visit if you are traveling to the area. To get there, you’ll have to travel over the stunning Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which incidentally grew a meter in length due to the earthquake, but remained fully intact due to the advanced standards of engineering which were used in its construction. Another memorial site of interest is the stunning Disaster Reduction Museum which is just east of the city.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading my contribution to this month’s Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted very kindly by loneleeplanet, and shown that history that has happened just a few decades ago can be as interesting and relevant as any other historical investigation.

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