Inside the Quake Zone, 25 Years On

(left) The collapsed Hoki Building near JR Koshienguchi station just after the quake in 1995, and the rebuilt building (in blue) today

We walk the streets of the old neighborhood this afternoon, remembering another place, another time. Our former apartment building is still there on the south side of JR Koshienguchi station in Nishinomiya, but the cozy third-floor unit where my wife, son and I first lived as a new family, apartment #303, is now being rented out to some local business. The family-run liquor shop just across the way from us in the local shopping arcade is still there, as is the old family-run stationery shop, the shelves filled with office supplies and paper that seemed unmoved since 17 January 1995, the day of the big quake.

There’s the old okonomiyaki restaurant, still in business, and the meat shop, and our former dentist office and the two grocery stores we used to frequent. The toy store that was a favorite of our then-infant son is still there, with an elderly woman sitting in that old chair and welcoming youthful customers. A Japanese-style restaurant we used to love going to is still there, but with a changed name and owner. A couple of other small restaurants have since become beauty salons. A local volunteer fire station on the south side of the station is now gone, replaced by flower beds.

The north side of JR Koshienguchi station, meanwhile, is where the Hoki Building used to be. That old concrete building, housing mostly local residents, crumbled during the earthquake, and I reported on that in one of the first news reports about the disaster to be covered in the English-language press in Japan from inside the quake zone. The sight of that toppled building, long gone now, is one I will never forget. The building has long since been rebuilt. (See photos above)

A quarter of a century ago this very day, 17 January, we were living inside the quake zone of the Great Hanshin Earthquake and, like many others in this part of Japan, had our lives turned upside down. But we were among the lucky ones: We survived the disaster, while others succumbed to death amid the awesome power of nature.

If you have ever lived through a major natural disaster, you know well — as we did back then — the feeling of helplessness, anxiety and even grief that often comes with being a survivor and witnessing destruction and death all around you. But at the same time, you also know about the courage to carry on and the compassion for others around you who are less fortunate. You know what it means to be alive and to be human.

All this is what I remember so clearly about those days inside the quake zone, 25 years on. We just had to be back here again on the very day when that quake hit. It was our way of remembering and seeking some closure two and a half decades later. (Here is another remembrance of the quake victims from five years ago.)

The sights, the sounds, the smells of the local shopping arcade above which we lived all come back to me today. Feelings of both nostalgia and sadness, mostly, at the way local people helped each other get back on their feet after the disaster and also at the sights of old-style Japanese houses that toppled like paper pyramids from the sheer force of the quake. Some people died under those piles of rubble, and you always knew which ones they were because small bouquets of flowers were set on the front porches where the deceased had once lived.

I can still see myself in the quake’s aftermath lugging home heavy jugs of water that I managed to fill from a broken water pipe a few blocks from where we lived, as an elderly Japanese man on a passing bicycle calls out to me Ganbare! (Keep going!), then me getting those heavy jugs up three flights of stairs to our room — and repeating the process the next day and the next and the next to make sure we had enough water to live on.

I can see us, back then, taking whatever food items we could spare to homeless neighbors who were camped out in nearby parks or in community centers. I remember leaving our six-month-old baby with the landlord downstairs while I went out into the local streets with my wife to report on the devastation for the newspaper I was working for at the time. It all seems like a distant nightmare now, but the memories are still so clear and so fresh again on this day, 25 years later.

Much noise was made in the media back in January 1995 about some Japanese news reporters who had lived in the quake zone rushing out, like good company soldiers, and leaving their families behind to fend for themselves immediately following the quake so that the reporters could get a scoop for their media companies. I thought they were damn fools. Family always comes first, and it was only after making absolutely sure that my wife and infant son would be secure and safe on their own after the disaster that I decided to go back to work at my newspaper’s office in downtown Osaka about a week later. It didn’t score me a lot of corporate points, but I never regretted my choice for a minute. And I still don’t. Taking care of family amidst a major disaster was top priority for me back then, not getting some cheap pat on the back by fellow hacks in the corporate press.

Today, I look around here and see that old houses in this community have been rebuilt, residents have come and gone since that time, and new shops have opened. Enough of the old still remains from the time of the earthquake to hold on to mentally and emotionally — and yet enough has changed for the better, thankfully, to give me some hope for tomorrow.

We lived through a kind of hell back then and came back here again today, a quarter of a century later, much older and wiser and hardened by day-to-day living. Home is what this little corner of the world once was to us: our first home as a young family, in fact, full of hope and optimism. We left this place a few years after the quake, forever changed by it all, as anyone would be.

All that’s left for me to do on this special day, 25 years later, is to humbly bow and offer up some silent prayers of remembrance for the ones in our neighborhood who never made it out alive back then, thankful that we did: Rest in peace, and know that you will not be forgotten. And with that, it’s time to catch the next train and leave this area once again, to go home safely together. But we will back again and again to remember, I promise myself. As sure as I’m standing here, I know it’s a promise we will keep.

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