David Pilling: Lessons learnt from Kobe quake





[David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times.]

Japan has seen nothing quite like it since 1995. Back then, when the devastating Kobe earthquake struck, at 5:46 on the morning of January 17, the country still felt invincible. Though the Japanese bubble had long ago burst, most Japanese had not yet reconciled themselves to the years of gentle decline that were to follow. The years of Japan as the wonder economy that would shortly overhaul the US to become Number One felt much closer. The Kobe earthquake, which killed 6,500 and caused some of the country’s supposed engineering miracles to crumble into dust, shattered those illusions.

The sight of Japan’s supposedly earthquake-proof buildings and flyovers buckling under the force of an earthquake sent a psychological shockwave through the nation. That sense of vulnerability was compounded two months later when, in March, members of Aum Shinrikyo, a religious cult, sprinkled sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people and seriously injuring hundreds more. Haruki Murakami, the novelist who interviewed victims of that attack for his book Underground, said the combined effect of Japan being pummelled by nature and by enemies within made 1995 the country’s most traumatic year since the war.

The Kobe earthquake, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, was a mere rumble compared the massive earth-shaking force that ripped through the northern coast of Japan on Friday. The earthquake that hit Kobe, a city of 1.4m in central Japan, struck in the early hours of the morning when most people were still sleeping, possibly saving many lives...

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