Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Remembering Kobe—Japan’s Last Earthquake

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A survivor of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan anxiously waits as rescue worker search for her relatives.

Watching the amateur and professional videos of that horrendous tsunami hitting Japan, I felt that same cold dread  as when I saw the twin towers fall on 9/11.

It was impossible not to feel complete horror as the 24-foot high, 125-mile long tsunami slammed into the flat coastline of northeastern Japan. The towns and orderly farms were ground under by a giant liquid bulldozer, destroying everything in it’s pathway.

In front of our eyes lives were lost, families destroyed, fortunes forever changed.  Survivors will never be able to regain normalcy. How could they?  For those living through this calamity, the guilt of surviving when so many died will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Japan’s prime minister called it the worst disaster to hit the country since WWII.

This unfortunate series of events were recorded in unprecedented ways. Tsunamis have rarely been captured on film or video. Fast and deadly, those in the path of tsunamis can do little more than flee if they hope to survive. But as more and more video surfaced in the hours and days after the disaster, it seemed  everyone not swept away in the wall of water and mud had been recording the devastation on video cameras and cell phones.

The torrent of images reminded me of when I covered the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. 6,400 people died in that one city. Thousands were left homeless in the freezing January weather.

I arrived in Kobe eight days after the quake occurred. I wasn’t prepared for the personal way in which the devastation affected me. My mother is Japanese. My father, an American sailor,  met her in Japan in the 1950s. They married and I was born in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

After moving to the United States, my mother took on the role of an American housewife and rarely discussed her culture.  As a child I didn’t connect  with my Japanese roots. But as an adult, I started visiting Japan to photograph stories for National Geographic magazine. I soon realized  even though I was raised in the United States, my first two years of life in Japan  had woven enough strands of the Japanese character into my soul, that it affected how I reacted to conflict and friendships.   It explains a character I have that I’ve never  understood,  a strong persistence even in face of pending failure.

Ironically, my  first trip to Japan was to  covered their nuclear energy program for piece on “Radiation”.  Japan was the  only country to have suffered attacks by atomic weapons.   Yet they also embrace nuclear power. It’s a dangerous embrace—even in the late 1980s when I covered the story, Japanese were concerned about the safety of nuclear facilities in their earthquake prone country. Interestly, we were not given access to any of their plants at that time.

In the wake of the tsunami, we see how those fears were well placed—the Daiichi nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture may have suffered a partial meltdown, and is likely ruined by emergency cooling efforts. The possibility of long-term contamination still lingers over the region’s devastated survivors.

Japan’s embrace of nuclear power has always baffled me. They are an energy-starved country.   But they are also dead center on an earthquake zone .  Any more quakes and tsunamis following this one could turn a mere disaster into Armageddon.

We, in the United States,  are no different. We have nuclear facilities on top of fault lines in California. One of the worst earthquakes to hit the US was in the early 1880’s, the New Madrid Earthquake,  reversing the flow of the Mississippi River and creating Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.  It was felt as far away as Washington D.C.  and Canada.  Today, nuclear reactors are all through that region.

I thought about the Japanese nuclear reactors while  covering the  earthquake in Kobe.  The story I worked on looked at  the recovery efforts, but  because it would be published months after the quake, it also examined  how Japanese perseverance and it’s mono-culture moved it’s recovery along. Everyone was in it together.     I remember going to a “refugee camp” where thousand of homeless huddled in the gymnasium of a large high school. Tatami mats were lined wall to wall and strangers slept literally next to each other.

Japanese aid workers serve hot meals to Kobe residents after the 1995 earthquake.

Each day they served one hot meal—a bowl of soup. I photographed the serving of the meal.  People in line insisted I got the first bowl.  I was a guest. I was deeply moved that even in the midst of such tragedy their sense of hospitality was so ingrained into their spirit that they would offer  it to a stranger   under such stressful circumstances.    I was also amazed that I could walk by a devastated liquor store with yellow police tape around it and nothing would be taken. A jewelry story still had diamond rings untouched in its window. There was none  of the chaos and looting often seen when disaster hits other locations, including those in our own country.

Because it was the era of film,  I could still gather original images that no one else had seen weeks after the quake had hit.   There were no digital cell phones that could take and transmit pictures or videos instantly.  When I see the incredible images taken by “citizen journalists” coming out of Japan recently, it’s clear, the era in which I grew up in the professionally  has truly passed.

Maybe it is more of a transition than a passing.  My profession is in flux.  The way in which news is gathered has changed dramatically. New digital tools make it easy to capture events as they unfold before us. This most recent event,  occuring in the one of the most technological advanced countries in the world, proves it. We’ve seen intimate images of this disaster which  could never have been captured in previous times.  Most were taken by amateurs with cell phones and  transmitted onto the web for  the world to see.

There were  hints of that technology in 2004 with the  the Madrid train bombing, when cell phone images appeared on the front pages of major news publications. We saw it in Egypt this winter with what people called “the battle Google won.”  Cell phones in Japan captured video of the massive wall of water taking down buildings and sweeping people into oblivion. Those images will forever be part of our collective memory.

In the middle of al this tragedy, these technological devises also captured the strong human spirit   that I also encountered in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. I have faith that the kindness, generosity and perseverance of the Japanese people will carry them through this difficult time. They may have to adjust to a new reality that includes living a more austere life and re-examining the placement of nuclear faciltiies.   If so, we, in this country, might do well to study that pathway and perhaps walk it ourselves.

Written by kasmauski

March 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

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