Foreign Policy Blogs

Japan Remembers the Great Hanshin Earthquake, As Thoughts Turn to Haiti

Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that rocked sections of Hyogo Prefecture near Kobe, Japan and claimed 6,434 lives. Ceremonies were held throughout Kobe, as government officials, members of Japan’s imperial family, and bereaved loved ones sat in silent prayer at 5:46 am, the time that the earthquake first struck.

The timing of the the anniversary, coming as it did on the heels of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, has underscored for many observers – both in Japan and worldwide – the relevancy of disaster preparedness and Japan’s steps to mitigate damage and consolidate risk.

Images coming out of Haiti have no doubt resonated strongly with many Japanese who live under the constant threat of earthquake.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is one of them. In a recent blog post he extended his condolences to Haiti and also reiterated Japan’s commitment to aid in the reconstruction effort.

“Japan needs to share its [earthquake] disaster prevention policies with Haiti and the world…we should take this opportunity to reach out to Haiti… and to remember the threat still with us here at home.”

Following the memorial proceedings, the Japanese government convened its annual Disaster Management Symposium, which “aimed to raise people’s awareness of how disaster preparedness can help achieve sustainable development.” In the opening address, Shigeru Nakamura of the Foreign Ministry, further called upon Japanese industry and the government to reach out to Haiti. Like Mr. Hatoyama, he also reminded the audience that the threat of another Hanshin earthquake forever lingers, and as Japan looks outward at the tragedy in Haiti it should re-think its own policies at home.

A panel of Japanese experts is already being mobilized to work with the reconstruction effort in Haiti, and is expected to be dispatched after the initial humanitarian/search-and-rescue mission has been completed.

If any single lesson can be distilled from Japan’s sorrowful anniversary it is that disaster conscious construction, aimed at mitigation, can go a long way. That Japan experienced a more powerful earthquake (7.3 versus 7.0) in a more densely populated area and walked away with but a fraction of the death toll clearly demonstrates that well-thought out (albeit expensive) urban planning can go a long way. It should also bring into sharp relief the impoverished state of Haiti, as disaster-conscious urban planning remained a distant dream so long as more systemic problems like abject poverty persisted.

Looking back at the Great Hanshin Earthquake should be a lesson for us all. But it should also inspire hope. Kobe has rebuilt and moved on, though the painful memories still linger. Haiti will rebuild and new earthquakes will happen. In the meantime, we would be apt to consider what we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in the event of such a calamity.

You can donate to Haiti here, if you havent already.



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.