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Many in Kobe Unhappy Over Pace of Quake Recovery

December 23, 1995

KOBE, Japan (AP) _ Shinichi Sato was lying in the hospital nearly a year ago, unable to help while his friends gathered up antiques and bric-a-brac from his earthquake-shattered store and moved them to a nearby park.

Recovered from the injuries he suffered in the devastating quake, Sato has moved in with his collection. Sitting under a makeshift awning on a recent wintry night, watching sumo wrestling on TV and sipping sake, he seemed almost cheerful.

But cheerful earthquake survivors are rare in Kobe. Nearly 12 months after the earth heaved and more than 6,000 people died, the city is far from recovery.

As winter’s grip tightens, the mood ranges from resignation to distinctly un-Japanese outbursts of anger against City Hall and the government in Tokyo.

``Kobe is sinking,″ says Koichi Yokoyama, a city official who works in earthquake restoration. ``Kobe is still down for the count,″ adds Ryutaro Takanashi, chief earthquake reporter at the daily Kobe Shimbun.

At first glance, the cranes, scaffolding and men in hardhats make Kobe look like any vibrant Asian city on the build. The port, Japan’s export gateway, is back to 70 percent of pre-quake capacity, and nearly all the roads are rebuilt. The cross-city elevated expressway that tilted and crumpled in the tremor last Jan. 17 is under repair.

The nightclubs are packed. On a cleaned-up patch of the city center a fashion shoot is under way. Outside the railroad station, a Japanese street musician is belting out ``Hotel California″ and ``She Loves You″ to appreciative crowds.

But it is largely an illusion, says City Hall’s Yokoyama. Behind the ``WE LOVE KOBE″ slogans plastered on construction fences, debris is being removed but little is being built, he says.

``To rebuild, companies as well as individuals have to borrow a lot of money, and in many cases they just can’t,″ he said in an interview.

After the quake, officials in Kobe warned gawkers to stay away. Now the city wishes they would come. Tourism was down 55 percent for 1995.

Reporter Takanashi fears Tokyo’s attention has shifted from Kobe to Aum Shinri Kyo, the cult accused of the nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subways two months after the earthquake.

On his visits to the capital, he says, he is dismayed to hear officials tell him that ``Kobe is on the road to recovery″ or ``We can’t always give Kobe special treatment.″

The national government has poured 32 trillion yen ($32 billion) into Kobe, but the money ``seems to have gone into rebuilding the port and getting the highways reopened,″ Takanashi said in an interview. ``It doesn’t seem to find its way down to living people.″

By ``living people,″ he means primarily the 47,000 families living in barracks-like clusters of temporary huts. There are also 1,600 people camped in schools and parks, and even small groups who have refused to leave apartment buildings condemned as structurally dangerous.

Kobe has a master plan for reconstructing itself over the next 10 years as a model city with high-class housing. But Yokoyama, the City Hall official, acknowledged it will be four to five years before the hut people move to permanent homes.

One sprawl of huts is on barren, reclaimed land near the docks, where Norio Doi, 49, slowly works himself into a rage about the ``no-good bums″ who run the city.

``Why are they building an airport in Kobe? They should spend the money on the earthquake victims!″ he exclaimed. ``Japan is even lower than a developing country. It’s the worst.″

The nameless grid of metal-roofed huts lacks any sense of community _ a depressing prospect in a country that lives by a complex, almost clannish social code.

No blade of grass grows here. It is far from the city center. When it rains, the place becomes waterlogged. The walls are thin and conversations carry. There is no neighborhood coffee shop, only a drinks machine.

A lone woman pecked at a puddle with a garden rake, trying to drain the water away. By her two-roomed hut she has a window box of tulips, onions and herbs in a forlorn effort to infuse life into the pallid moonscape.

Doi, a stubby man in a baseball cap, grew angrier. ``I have nothing against foreigners,″ he said. ``But I don’t understand how Japan can spend money on foreign aid when people have to live here in these barracks.″

His 12-year-old son suffers from discrimination simply for having been displaced to a new school _ a phenomenon confirmed by City Hall’s Yokoyama, who explained it is very unusual for a Japanese child to change schools.

``You hear parents telling their children, `Don’t go playing at the temporary housing’,″ Doi said.

Many of those left jobless after the quake still haven’t found new work. Outside City Hall, Michiko Asada lined up at a tent run by a volunteer relief group to collect a handout equivalent to $100.

At 58, she lost her job in the Kobe zoo store because business declined after the quake. She and her husband, who lost all their belongings in the disaster, live in a temporary hut.

The city gave her two payments totaling $2,400, but that ran out long ago. There are no street lights at the huts, and Mrs. Asada is afraid to go out at night.

``I just wish the city would put in more lights,″ she said.

Sojiro Kawamura, a wispy-bearded man in monk’s robes who runs the charity, said Japanese are too meek.

``This was a really big earthquake. You can’t just go up to the government cap-in-hand. You have to make your demands forcefully,″ he said.

The city has done a lot to make life tolerable. It pipes gas, water, phone lines and electricity to the huts and camp dwellers. The huts rent for $200 a month _ extremely cheap by Japanese standards.

Some victims refuse to go to the huts, preferring to live rough in order to be near hospitals or their children’s schools.

In Ikutagawa Park, a narrow strip of trees between two busy streets, 72-year-old Reiko Kaji sat by a fire and clutched her poodle in her arms. She has a heart condition and wants to be close to the hospital, so she is living in a rickety lean-to.

``She still imagines earth tremors sometimes and starts to shake,″ said her friend, Yoshio Tanigawa.

Hideo Nakahara, 57, showed a visitor his own tiny lean-to, with his old pre-earthquake address painstakingly painted on the door.

He proudly produced a doctor’s order to have his injured leg amputated. He was ignoring it, he said, because ``I never admit defeat.″

In the same park, Sato, the bric-a-brac dealer, led a visitor around his collection of ship’s helms, Japanese lacquered boxes, bundles of fishing rods, decrepit mopeds and bicycles, model ships, grandfather clocks, old radios and low-tech TVs.

One day he might start a new shop, he said, but meanwhile he was glad to have his family and collection around him.

``All I can do is face the winter,″ he said. ``It’ll come, whatever happens. If I get cold, I’ll hug my wife tighter.″

``Next spring,″ he added, ``the cherry trees will blossom again.″

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