Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective

Kobe earthquake

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 that followed it.

Newer buildings had been built to withstand the seismic pressure, but many of the city’s 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.

Racial Friction

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.

In Kobe, 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 Future

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.

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26 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Anonymous

    why did it happen?

  2. it happened because the plate tectonics under neath the city moved creating vibrations to move towards the surface of the earth creating an earthquake 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    why do u think it happened …. of course it happened becuz of the plate tectonics and in the plate tectonic is called the destructive margin :);D

  4. sigh, u guys are nerds, fighting why the earthquake happened xD

  5. Mrs. Franco

    what’ll they do in the future to protect themselves if this is to happen again?

  6. Matty

    I suppose they’d just hope for the best x:D

  7. Lmao.

    Thats gonna help aint it 😛
    They’ll Just Make More Cupboards to get in.

  8. Zabby Carnassial

    We’re doing this in geography… Apparently there was a previously undiscovered faultline almost directly underneath Kobe, which caused the desolation in the city above.

  9. Charlie Harris

    Why did it happen? Surley they would of seen it coming and evacuate the wost effected area!!

  10. Daniel Harris

    I Just Want To Say That My Heart Goes Out To The Families That Lost Loved Ones!!!!!!! =[

  11. meeeeeeee

    did people get interviewed after it happened

  12. Lauraa

    Yeh I learning about it in georgraphy its horrible what happened 🙁

  13. charlotte callard

    It happewned becasue the oceanic philippines plate moved and disappeared under the continental eurasian plate, on the destructive plate marginl, this caused an earthquake to happen in the awaji islands and the seismic waves travelled down the nojima fault line to kobe where the damge was caused, because the epicentre and the focus where very close the surface.

  14. Angela Hartrampf

    I’m glad they are rebuilding Kobe, Japan. 😀

  15. It happened in my home country of Honduras,it wasn’t nearly as bad though.How did it happen?

  16. Anonymous

    There is no way of predicting a earthquake so they couldnt have evacuated quick enough. They already had prepared for a earthquake by making earthquake proof buildings. There was a law/guideline meaning that all buildings had to be built to earthquake safe standards. However this law didnt come into play until 1981. Many buildings in Kobe had been built before this meaning that they didnt hold up well against the earthquake in 1995

  17. Fizzbitch

    This happened a while ago, but Japan doesn’t have to worry about another earthquake soon =3

  18. Reply to charlie

    It’s much harder to detect earthquakes than you think. In fact it’s near impossible. That’s why Haiti was hit so hard. If they had known, they would have evacuated immediately.

  19. Wow i’m doin a case study about it and shame i feel so sorry for all those guys,so that prob means if they cant predict an earthquake at least if they build quake-proof houses and buildings for future use dnt u think so too


    cant anyone just explain it in detail about the plate margins and that?

  21. to need to know

    the techtonic plates vibrated which is all causes a earthquake. but the epicentre was the awaji island so it was worst over thier

  22. Justinbiebersgirlfrend

    We’re doing this in geography too :L. Our teacher was like, AN EARTHQUAKE CAN HAPPEN ANY MOMENT NOWW. And we all just started screamingg ;’). It was funnii. (;

  23. henna asif

    OMG i learned about this in geogrpahy its so sad…… i go to icknield high school and i am shocked i have to write an essay about this 🙁 anyways its so deppresssing im so sad

  24. could you please write an arlice on my earthquake predictions for japan if i show you proof of my past 10 successfull predictions.i am a researcher doing research on predicting earthquakes for japan.i even predicted niigata earthquake of 2004 and last major one on 14 november 2005 of 7.1 on richter scale exact on date.it could be great news for you.I WILL SHOW YOU THE PROOF OF MY PREDICTIONS.hope a reply from you. rahul bhatnagar

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