Short Cuts

Peter McGill

Measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, the Kobe earthquake of 1995 killed nearly 6500 people. Tall buildings crumpled, a large section of motorway flyover collapsed, and land reclaimed from the sea liquefied. The response of the Japanese authorities was chaotic. The regional governor was extremely reluctant to call for military help. A socialist, he opposed the existence of the Self-Defence Forces as being illegal under the constitution the American occupiers had drafted in 1947. Rescue offers from abroad became similarly ensnared in red tape. The UK was told that its sniffer dogs, trained to find people trapped under rubble, would require quarantine before being allowed entry to Japan. By the time troops and rescue teams arrived in Kobe, it was too late. Yakuza were quick to fill the void and burnish their image. The Yamaguchi-gumi, one of the biggest crime syndicates in the world, originated on the Kobe docks and still has its headquarters in the city. In the days that followed the earthquake, its foot soldiers handed out food, water and nappies every morning and evening.

Kobe’s death and destruction were concentrated in the solidly working-class ward of Nagata, a centre of Japanese shoe production. Before it was levelled, Nagata was home to about half of Kobe’s 20,000 Korean residents, as well as Japan’s largest ghetto of burakumin. The word means ‘hamlet people’ though its mere mention usually draws instant embarrassment. Descendants of outcasts, they were officially termed Eta (‘filth-abundant’) and Hinin (‘non-people’) until legal emancipation in 1871. In the old days, they were assigned the ‘unclean’ occupations: slaughtering animals predominantly, but also tanning and leatherwork; hence the clustering around the many small shoe factories of Nagata.

The regional branch office of the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) was at the top of a hilly street in central Kobe. At the bottom of the hill was the headquarters of the regional government, which in the days after the quake was surrounded by black limousines and broadcast vans from all the main Japanese media. None of the journalists walked up the hill to interview the BLL. While several of them reported sympathetically on the plight of the Korean community in Kobe, the burakumin were studiously ignored. This did not appear to anger the BLL. ‘If the Japanese media were to emphasise burakumin, it really would be discrimination,’ the local head told me. ‘Koreans are a different race. We are trying to show the Japanese that we are the same people, even though some have mistaken ideas about burakumin – for instance, that we eat different food, or wear different clothes.’

In the wake of this month’s disaster things were rather different: the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan wasted no time in accepting outside offers of help, even from China and South Korea, two neighbouring countries whose populations have been taught to hate Japan. Their rescue teams have since been picking through the wreckage; I even caught sight of a British sniffer dog. More controversially, Japan is witnessing its biggest military deployment since 1945. Until now, the Self-Defence Forces have been consigned to the shadows as constitutional pariahs. They still seem to be squirming inside their khaki, uncomfortable under the public gaze. But for once, nobody is raising the alarm about a resurgence of Japanese militarism.

That certainly was not the case after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1 September 1923. Martial law was declared, and the Pathé Gazette had to film the devastation of Tokyo and Yokohama in secret, using a concealed camera. Many Japanese still believed that earthquakes were caused by a gigantic catfish lying on the ocean floor underneath Japan, which stirred when the Sun Goddess was displeased with her son, the emperor. The then emperor happened to be mentally deranged. His son, Hirohito, had been declared regent, and took charge of earthquake measures in Tokyo while Emperor Taisho was kept out of public view.

The first earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, struck two minutes before noon, as people were lighting their charcoal braziers to prepare lunch. The braziers fell over, and whole neighbourhoods of wooden houses were set ablaze. Strong winds from a typhoon blowing in northern Japan whipped up the flames, creating firestorms. In the working-class flatlands of Tokyo near the Sumida River, 40,000 people took refuge in a former military clothing depot that was being cleared to make a municipal park. About 38,000 of them died there from fire or suffocation. Another 630 died in the brothels of Yoshiwara, unable to escape from a walled enclosure.

The epicentre of the quake was in Sagami Bay, and a tsunami, far higher than the one that has just destroyed towns and villages in north-east Japan, battered the shorelines. Altogether, 142,907 were killed or reported missing. A memorial temple and pagoda intended to contain a huge pile of bones and ashes was built in Yokoami Park, where the 38,000 had perished in the clothing depot. In 1931, a red brick Reconstruction Memorial Hall was added. I visited in 2007. The only other visitor was a tramp. Inside I found a couple of American posters soliciting aid for stricken Japan. The US appeal, kicked off by Calvin Coolidge, only recently installed in the Oval Office, raised $19.6 million, an enormous sum at the time. About one-tenth was spent on building the Doai (Fraternity) Memorial Hospital on the east bank of the Sumida, close to Yokoami Park. Nowadays, it is best known among Tokyoites for treating famous sumo wrestlers. Few know of its origins.

Fraternity between the US and Japan didn’t last long. On 10 March 1945, wave after wave of Superfortress bombers avenged the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by dropping 1530 tons of incendiaries on Tokyo. By some reckonings, the firebombing of Tokyo killed more than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Again, the toll was heaviest in the shitamachi, the ‘low city’, where wooden Japanese houses, quickly rebuilt after the 1923 earthquake, were easily consumed by flames. The Sumida River was choked with charred corpses.

After the war, the headquarters of the Allied Occupation ordered the remains of 105,000 air-raid victims to be placed in the charnel house intended for the victims of the earthquake in Yokoami Park. In the 1990s, a bitter debate over war guilt and responsibility erupted over a plan to build a peace museum in the park. The plan was scrapped, and in 2001 a large memorial to the firebombing victims was unveiled there instead. The Reconstruction Memorial Hall remains divided: the ground floor is devoted to shabby and dusty exhibits related to the earthquake; the floor above to the firebombing.