Kobe Earthquake–Interview with a Survivor

Originally published as”Kobe Earthquake” in the Clear Lake Courier — July 15, 1998

The earthquake that struck Kobe (ko-bay), Japan, in 1995 registered 7.2 on the Richter scale and lasted twenty seconds. Fires and collapsed buildings and bridges throughout the city killed 5000 people and injured 21,000. More than 275,000 of the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants were left homeless.

I interviewed a survivor of that earthquake. Ruth Harimoto grew up in Tokyo, the daughter of Lutheran missionaries from Wisconsin. In 1995 she was living in Kobe with her husband, Paul, and their two young sons.

One of the reasons Ruth wanted to move to Kobe was that she felt safe there. Kobe was not considered an earthquake area; it had none of the tremors commonly experienced in Tokyo. That changed at 5:47 AM on January 17.

The Harimotos heard the earthquake before they felt it. A deeptrain-like rumble woke them, and then the shaking began. In Tokyo tremors had always made Ruth wonder, “Is this going to be the big one?” Here in Kobe, she had no doubt. She knew immediately this was the big one.

In traditional Japanese style, the family slept together on the floor of a tatami room that contained no furniture. There was nothing to fall on them and they were uninjured. The noise increased as things started moving. Lying in their upstairs bedroom, they could hear dishes crashing to the floor downstairs. Ruth expected the house to fall on them. When she realized they would all die, she thought, through her fear, “Oh, I’m going to be in heaven any minute.”

But the house did not fall, and the shaking stopped. When the family went downstairs, they found the floors covered with broken glass. The doors to the china cabinet and all the kitchen cupboards had come open and discharged their contents.

The Harimotos dressed in ski wear for warmth and bike helmets for protection against falling objects, and went outside. Carrying a bag of food and drink, they tried to decide where to go. The smell of gas prevented them from staying home, and frequent aftershocks still shook the ground.

The street was buckled, with water from broken pipes rushing down it like a river. Several houses had collapsed, with many others tilted or showing cracked walls and broken windows.

After spending three hours with nearby friends, the Harimotos returned home to find the gas smell dissipated. Their house appeared structurally sound, with no broken windows; it seemed the safest place to be. Sweeping up broken glass was almost all the cleaning required.

The electricity had already come back on, and new reports on television showed the devastation throughout the city. The earthquake originated on a small island off Kobe’s southern coast and moved through the city to the mountains that bordered the northern edge.

Because Harimotos lived in the northern section, away from the congestion of the city, the damage was not as bad. There were no fires. Boulders loosened by the earthquake rolled down the mountain. One house had a big boulder in its driveway.

A heavy rain fell three days later, causing landslides and damaging hillside homes that had survived the initial earthquake. There was no gas or water. With electric heat, the Harimotos would be warm. Their major concern was lack of water.

Ruth went to a convenience store, which had all its front windows broken and all its shelves tipped over. In spite of the mess, an employee stood behind the cash register and customers waited in line to pay for their food. Ruth was amazed to see–in the middle of this disaster–people lined up in such an orderly fashion.

Numerous people stayed in the Harimoto house until their homes were repaired or they went to live with relatives. Many of them Ruth didn’t even know. The population shifted day by day.

After the initial days of concentrating on survival, life turned into one of drudgery until gas and water were restored two months later. Getting enough water, thinking about being able to take a bath and wash clothes, finding food and being able to wash dishes–these were constant struggles.

Families who still had water and propane gas allowed people to come into their homes to take baths. Ruth says, “I don’t know how many different places we took baths.” One woman who lived up on the mountain invited people to drop off baskets of laundry, which she washed for them.

Tremors continued every day for weeks, with frequent aftershocks for months. They didn’t cause much damage, but were fearful to those who had lived through “the big one.”

I asked Ruth if she lives differently now. She said she doesn’t sit under the balcony in church because she’s afraid it will fall on her. And she no longer takes for granted the ground we walk on: “We live in the hand of God. If even the ground you walk on could crack open and swallow you up, or shake so much your house falls down on you, what is there you can trust? Basically, there isn’t anything on earth you can trust. That was a good lesson.”

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