Today in 1995, a big earthquake suddenly hit Kobe and the Hanshin-Awaji area, killing more than 6,000 people and destroying millions of households and buildings in that area. At that time I lived in my parents’ house in Nishinomiya, Hyogo, a city in the eastern vicinities of Kobe. This entry is the record of what I experienced there when that disaster happened twenty years ago.
I was then in the third year in my university. I attended class in the daytime, and after school it was fun to use Olivetti’s Windows 3.1 PC with an i486SX/33MHz processor, a 540MB hard disk drive and 12MB memory, bought four months before on a daily basis for doing my homework or accessing online via a 2,400-bit-per-second FAX modem through the telephone line in my room on the first floor of my house. I lived with my parents and my elder brother. My elder sister, who had married five years before, inhabited with her husband, a three-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter at Koyoen in Nishinomiya, about a mile away from our house.
I felt a presage of the big disaster in the evening of 16 January. It was the last day of a three-day weekend. I was in front of my PC, accessing to the NIFTY-Serve, one of Japan’s the-then major online services. Then I suddenly heard the shutter of the window trembling a little. I didn’t know what it was about at the beginning, but at the next moment, I noticed it might be an earthquake, which was in those days very rare in the area where I lived. I turned on the radio in my room to check if some news about the earthquake was broadcast, but there wasn’t any such news. I had an unpleasant hunch that it might be a prologue of a big and serious affair.
At 5.46 am of the next morning, I was sleeping in the futon and about to be awake. At first, a subtle trembling happened on the ground. I became aware of it very soon, and I thought it was the same tremor as I’ve had the day before. However, it did not cease soon. The amplitude of vibration was growing more and more like the emission of simple oscillation which you may learn at physics. At last, the small shaking turned into a huge stir with a roaring sound.
“Jesus Christ, what on earth is that?” I cried my mind many times, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t do anything but stop myself and give myself to the shaking, seeing the display on my PC falling down, a pending light falling down, a wardrobe falling down, the telly and the stereo falling down, and countless books flying from the bookshelf over my head.
Although the quake actually lasted for between 10 and 20 seconds, I felt it did for over 30 seconds or even one minute. The intensity of the earthquake at the area where I was was between 5+ and 6 in Richter scale. I was astonished and despondent at the beginning, but I soon noticed that this was an emergency and I should act for this. At first, I was anxious about the safety of my parents who were sleeping in the bedroom on the ground floor and my elder brother in another bedroom on the first floor. Then I put aside the wardrobe, the stereo and the book that had fallen down on my feet, went downstairs and shouted, “Hey, are you all right?” My parents could get out of their bedroom safe and sound, but my brother was pressed underneath the furniture and couldn’t get out. I knocked on the door of his room and spoke to him, but he didn’t respond. I tried to open the door, but it couldn’t be opened as the chest and the bookshelf fallen in was getting in the way. My parents came by, hit the door many times and called him in a loud voice from outside. After a short time, an answer was heard and he crept out from the room without help. He wasn’t injured at all.
My family was all safe, but we didn’t know if my sister’s family was doing well or not. We got out of the house and walked for the garage through the outside still utterly dark. The road in front of the house cracked a great deal and had the smell of gas from the cracks. We got in the car and listened to the radio. It was announced that there had been a big earthquake in the Kinki district a while before, but no more information was broadcast at that time. A few minutes later, additional information was announced, saying that two were killed in the Awaji Island. Seeing on the way to my sister’s flat some houses and coffee shops on the street with their first floors crushing their ground floors and falling down to the same level as them, I couldn’t believe that the death toll was just two.
Arriving at Koyoen to see my sister’s family, we saw they doing well. My sister was surprised to see us worrying too much because Koyoen wasn’t damaged very much and she didn’t know how much it was serious.
Being back home, I saw some people with gowns getting out of their houses and gathering on the street. They looked a bit confused, but it wasn’t such a pandemonium that TV was reporting. Rather, it was a very peaceful atmosphere. But the peaceful atmosphere came to an end by cracking sound heard from the house three houses away to the left of ours, followed by the roaring sound with its first floor falling down and crushing its ground floor. People outside were astonished, rushed to the house and shouted, “Are you all right?” And, at the same time, black smoke rose from the opposite direction in the fallen house. We stood ready for the fire that might probably break out and easily expanded because no fire engine would’ve been able to come immediately at all. Luckily, however, the smoke ceased shortly and the owner of the fallen house was on the first floor on that day and was saved.
The Sun rose and it completely became a morning. I’ve had a bowel movement and went to the loo. The toilet could flush water at that time, but shortly it wasn’t available after the water tank became empty because water supply stopped due to the rupture of water pipes. About an hour later, the people outside broke up. Some returned to their houses, and some went to see what was going on around there. Those who couldn’t get into their houses evacuated to the nearest middle school auditorium. Those who had gone and seen the areas around gave us various kinds of information saying, “Kurakuen was devastated very much,” “A flat was collapsed, and a child crawling out of it was crying and called for his parents still buried inside,” and so on. I thought that this neighbourhood still seemed to have been the better one.
My family then spent a few hours in the car because we didn’t know how much the house was damaged and, seeing a nearby house collapsed, we were so scared that we were reluctant to get back inside. My brother brought a portable telly from his room for us. We watched the NHK news on it. Fire at Nakasusacho and Higashi Nada Ward of Kobe derailed Hanshin Railway trains, and the motorway flyover at Fukae lying down, etc., were aired on the TV. The videos reminded me of the scene that all over the nation had looked at one area in Kyushu devastated by a volcano’s eruption a few years before. This time, the area where we had lived on a daily basis was a mark of attention by everyone in the country. It gave me a strange feeling as if I had become a public figure. That being said, I felt anxious about our future that we would probably have to live in a shelter for many months like the evacuees in Kyushu.
A few hours passing, we felt hungry. We thought the house hadn’t fallen for many hours so it was safe for us to get inside to prepare brunch in the room closest to the entrance, where we put messy things aside so that there could be room for us four persons. My mother brought some rice cakes from the kitchen, toasted them with an electric toaster oven, and all of us ate them. After eating rice cakes, we began to clear up other rooms in the house. We saw a 21-inch telly at the corner of the living room blowing off, breaking through the windowpane and lying on outside. We saw glasses, cups and dishes in the cupboard in the dining room breaking through its glass door and falling down. Cheap dishes didn’t break even if they fell down, but rarely-used precious ones did, as Murphy’s Law might say. I went upstairs and get into my room, where neither did any glass break nor was the room in the dangerous state but it was as messy as other rooms. I saw a heavy chest falling down at the place where I always put my head when sleeping. It was lucky that it didn’t hit my head directly because I had such a bad manner of sleeping that, when the earthquake had occurred, I was sleeping in the place where I slipped in the side only more slightly than a usual place. If it had fallen down on my head directly, I could no longer have been alive. At first, I lifted up the stereo and telly where they had been. I put the falling display on the PC. Then I vacuumed the floor. Electricity wasn’t completely recovered, so the hoover sometimes stopped, and a while later it started. At the next moment, it stopped again, and started, repeatedly a few times. Cleaning up my room, I turned on the TV. It was showing the then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama making a speech by the look seeming meek, saying that there had seemed to have been a big serious earthquake in the Kinki region and he would do anything he could to help the region. Aftershocks sometimes happened.
Several hours later, electricity became stable. I turned my PC on. It started normally. I ran ScanDisk on it. I found that the hard disk was safe. Then I connected to NIFTY-Serve to see a temporary bulletin board about the earthquake set up so that members could read and write about information related to the disaster. I wrote to the forum members I was usually in touch with that I was all right. All TV stations announced special programmes about the earthquake, showing real-time death toll, which had been 200 to 300 at the beginning and shortly exceeded 500.
At night, all my family gathered in the room closest to the entrance, put an electrically heated carpet in the room, and spread the futon on it so that we could get out of the house very soon if a big aftershock occurred.
“You know we are very lucky,” my father said. “We still have our safe house, so we can stay here and sleep on the warm carpet. If our house had collapsed, we all would have to stay in the shelter and have to be patient in a cold room without any heating system.”
He said, “Poor people in a country at war…. They have to live their tough life like this every day for many years.”
When day broke, the helicopters of newspaper companies, TV stations and the Self Defence Forces were flying above our area busily with a buzz. TV programmes were broadcasting pictures of devastated areas as well as they did the day before. The morning news said that several railway lines, which hadn’t been available since the earthquake, had resumed operation. Hankyu Kobe Line was available only from Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi to Umeda. As Hankyu Senri and Kyoto lines were okay, I took the lines to drop in on the university class. On the train for Umeda, people were sitting on the seats, looking tired from walking a long distance from Kobe. I felt sympathy with them because they had to walk a long distance again to return to their houses at Kobe from Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi where no trains were available at that time.
The university and neighbourhoods around it looked quite different from that where I lived. It was almost the same as before. In the classroom, a professor was giving a lecture. The only exception was that students living in Kobe were not attending. After the class, I had to fetch some foods for my family waiting in the house. I dropped in on the nearest supermarket to look for some cup ramen or bread, but such foods were already out of stock. I got hamburgers at the hamburger shop and brought them home, watching for robbers who might rob me of the food on my way home.
Next day, before going to university I walked through the neighbourhoods around my house to see how they were going on. Some areas were seriously devastated and others weren’t so much. In Kurakuen area, where richer people prefer to live, most of the normal houses were completely destroyed, while many mansions and gorgeous residences were all right. Going southwards for Shukugawa area, the damage was getting more and more serious. I saw completely damaged houses, tilted telephone poles, and even a traffic light twisted 90 degrees! There were no people around. I thought they either had escaped to a shelter or had got out of the town. I found wooden notices beside the debris reading, “We moved to XXX,” “Mother died,” and so on. They depressed me so much that I walked fast to the east for Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi to run away from such a stagnant area as soon as possible, and jumped into the Hankyu train for the university where I could fleetingly forget the tough situation.
After the class was over, I got to Umeda and took a Hanshin railway to Koshien, where I walked to my house as the train wasn’t available beyond it at that time. Koshien Stadium wasn’t damaged very much. Walking about 500 metres from the stadium on Route 43 westwards, I found part of the flyover of Hanshin Expressway over Route 43 falling down on the ground on a V-shape basis, and a van falling into the ditch in the bottom of the V. It shocked me very much.
Evening news said the fire had begun at Nagata Ward of Kobe. Some people said that somebody who had gone to see the debris of his house burned some paper to put the light on, the burning paper had caught fire to the debris and that was why the fire had spread. Some said that it was because of the short circuit of damaged electric wires hanging on the falling poles. Nobody knew the exact reason, but anyway, the fire grew up, burned down everything on the ground for three days and nights, and put out.
One week later from the earthquake, my father, my mother, my brother and I were in my grandmother’s house at Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture. As my aunt was running a boarding house for university students near my grandmother’s house, my grandmother and my aunt recommended us to stay there for one week as there were empty rooms. My parents stayed in my grandmother’s house, and my brother and I in a room of the boarding house. It was very comfortable because gas was available and we could take a hot shower as much as we wanted. Shopping was easy because the house was very close to the shopping area in front of the railway station. That being said, I was reluctant to go out and play because I had to prepare for the second exams I was supposed to take in a few days. In the evening we watched the TV, where earthquake-related special programmes were broadcast in every station. There were no commercial messages on TV.
One week later, we got back to Nishinomiya again. A water supply worker happened to be working at the house next to mine to repair the water pipe. My mother called him to stop and asked him to resume the water supply of my house as well. It was lucky to be able to resume water supply very early because it would have been left until later if you had applied for repair work in an ordinary manner. That being said, the toilet wasn’t available yet as there was a damage in the water sewage pipe, which we had repaired later.
Bath and shower weren’t available as gas couldn’t be resumed in a day or two. To supply gas again, gas pipes from gas station to the house had to be checked thoroughly to make sure there was no gas leakage. Until the bath could be used in my house, I sometimes went to the nearest public bathhouse or my best friend’s house to let me use the bath. The friend was one of my classmates, who had lived in a boarding house at Toyonaka but moved to another room at Suita which he had found just one day later from the earthquake as the boarding house at Toyonaka had been collapsed. His new room was a little distant from the nearest station, but it was not a problem because he owned a car to drive to the classroom.
It was late in February that I visited Kobe first since the earthquake. Many trains to and from Kobe weren’t available yet, so I got to Kobe via Takarazuka of Hankyu Imazu Line, and Sanda of JR Fukuchiyama Line, where I changed trains to Kobe Dentetsu and Hokushin Kyuko Lines. I got off the train at Shin Kobe, where I found the streets not being so damaged as newspapers said. Yet I saw more and more buildings being damaged seriously and even collapsing when I walked on Flower Road towards Sannomiya, where I saw Sogo department building with its ground floor completely squashed and its entrance shutters bent like a damaged car. On the footbridge from Sannomiya station to Sogo building were stuck countless posters of information about missing persons, volunteer work, and messages from people in and out of the disaster area.
The city was completely out of order. It was terribly quiet even in the centre of the city. All I saw was people with only the clothes they happened to wear walking around expressionlessly. Dust and fine particles from the damaged buildings were afloat in the air and they sometimes hurt my eyes with contact lenses. Some people were wearing face masks to prevent them. I walked through the city from Sannomiya to Motomachi, where I took Hanshin Line to Kosoku-Kobe. Sannomiya looked seriously devastated, while other areas like Motomachi and Harbourland looked comparably normal.
Walking to JR Kobe Station, I took a JR train to get to Takatori Station at Nagata Ward. I can’t forget the scene that I saw a few neighbourhoods completely burnt down on my way just before Takatori. Getting off there, I saw the world of death under my eyes. All I’ve had were the odour of burnt-down buildings, the dust from the debris risen up in the air, and the tents placed in small parks by such families that had been burned out of their houses, and something like charity events at other parks. I stood at Sugawara Market, where most TV stations had broadcast that it had been burnt down for fire and dozens of people had been killed. It was an empty space. There was nothing. I saw some flowers put on the ground where there had been stores.
From there I walked to JR Hyogo station, where I caught a train for Sannomiya, making a connection with available lines. From Sannomiya, I walked a mile or two to Nada, where I had been born. I saw many houses with their damaged roofs covered with blue plastic sheets. I got to a small market where I had been taken by my mother every day when I had been a little kid. The shutters of all the stores were closed, but the market building looked safe. I felt tired. I went back home as I was satisfied that I could see very much what was going on in Kobe.
I visited Kobe many times after that. Actually, I didn’t like Kobe before the earthquake, because I was kind of jealous of this city as I moved out in my childhood and was no longer a Kobe citizen who could benefit no matter how much the city was developed. For that, I preferred going to Osaka for shopping and playing to going to Kobe. However, I changed my mind and visited Kobe frequently after the earthquake, for shopping or for just walking around, because I wanted to make some contribution to its recovery by tourist money. Part of the railway lines wasn’t resumed, so I walked on the street and felt people’s life in the town. I saw there the city being reconstructed day by day, stores which had been closed the day before being open again, and train lines beginning operation again step by step. I was really happy about seeing such scenes.
This disaster changed me a lot. It completely changed my mind, my philosophy, my view of life, my way of thinking, and what I thought was the most valuable things. I understand that anything visible may break or disappear all of a sudden. I understand that anybody living today may die tomorrow. I understand that you should do today anything you please, that you should go today anywhere you choose, that you should buy today anything you fancy, and you should not put off them till tomorrow, because you may not able to live tomorrow. I already learned those lessons from this earthquake twenty years ago, while most of the Japanese people changed their sense of values just four years ago when the 311 had happened. I’ve got to write down what I saw and what I learned from what I experienced, for helping those who already had such a disaster as well as making a suggestion to those who will be suffered from a disaster someday.