The Great Hanshin Earthquake

... usually known in the West as the "Kobe Earthquake". Hanshin is the area stretching from Kobe to Osaka, in central Japan. Two days ago it was 20 year anniversary of the quake. That is, by now, quite some time ago. At the time, I lived (for a limited time) with my family in Amagasaki, a town east of Kobe. The damage was far less in Amagasaki than in Kobe and its nearest towns. There were few casulties there, the trains kept running. Many households lost water, electricity and telephone for some time. Many houses had damages, and had later to be demolished. In Japan, many apartment houses has a ground floor consisting mainly of a car park, the house itself is on pillars with some staircases at the ends. The quake made that first floor collapse, so many houses dropped one floor down. So did the house behind the one we lived in. When I went into the kitchen, I saw someone out on the balcony in the next building less than ten yards away. Only later did I realise that that balcony was not supposed to be at ground level, but had dropped one floor down. That house had a partially collapsed ground floor, so it leaned a bit towards our house, which was smaller and made of wood. There was also gas leaks. We decided to accept an offer from a friend to move into their house a few hundred metres away. After all, there was gas, and also the fear of aftershocks that might break stuff even more.

Kobe is in an area which have comparatively few quakes (for Japan that is), so we never worried about them. In general, even the locals had little preparation, such as stores of bottled water and first aid. We had been a few months in Japan and not even felt small shakings, as far as I rememeber. However, after the quake, some told me they had felt small shakings the months leading up to the big one. But when the big quake hit, the automatic systems of survival kicks in, and I reacted very fast, running to the children's room to protect them. To be honest, not much one can do. One does what one have to do. Later I found the glass roof lamp, which was quite heavy, had been swinging in the same direction as the beds, got loose and flewn into the wall, and left a dent. If it had gotten loose a bit earlier or later it would have hit the beds. So it had at least hit me and not the children. I hope 🙂

The Hanshin quake was not of extremely high magnitude, and it was not particularly longlasting, 20 seconds (it felt long). It was however of the "inland shallow" type. That combined with a considerable part of Hanshin being built on soft or reclaimed (from the sea) land made the actual destruction big. The movement created by the quake was back and forth in a certain direction. Consequently, while some cupboards, such as in our kitchen, had emptied themselves on the floor, others had just shaken around their contents. The kitchen was full of crushed glass and other stuff all over. The quake hit early, where most people were at home. Too early for most people to be in their kitchen, let alone on trains and roads, which was one factor of luck, I suppose.

Many people were killed by collapsing buildings and fire, but some also of being crushed under heavy furniture. It had been very dry the previous autumn, so luckily there were few landslides. The earthquake could have killed many more people. What kills most people in quakes, not counting tsunamis, is soft ground and bad buildings. If you have a good house on solid ground, the intense shaking will not demolish your building. Newer buildings in Kobe had been built with deep foundations, so even while the ground around might have sunk a metre, the building is intact. I later saw highrises in central Kobe with even their windows intact, while nearby buildings had seen very severe damage. The Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, very near the epicentre, was under construction at the time. The towers were up, and it is testimony to good construction and engineering that they were intact after the quake. However the bridge had to be extended by a metre, due to the seismic moving of the ground. These days, because of lack of land and growing populations, people also tend to build on softer ground, e.g. along riverbeds and on slopes. Those are dangerous places when the ground shakes. Generally and globally, poor people are hit harder by natural disaster. There is also the factor of corruption and not following building regulations, where they do exist.

At first, we and our friends were a bit shaken that a strong quake had actually hit Hanshin, but we had no idea how bad it really was. The first news we got of casualties on the radio was 200 dead, and we were stunned. The more news came in and we were as shocked as anybody at the devastation. Military helicopters started heavy traffic over us days on end. The military got praise for fast response. The politicians and the police not. There was a big surge in spontaneous voluntary work.

There are so many stories to be told from any big natural disaster. Many lost family members, and many lost their homes. There were elderly people who after having lost their partner, took their own life. My family didn't suffer any injuries, apart from me cutting my hand and getting an infection while trying to clear the path to get out of the house that morning. Strangely, I only dreamt of quakes once or twice in all these years after. But I had for many years after often flashbacks, triggered by things like low frequency sounds, vibrations or just seeing news about disasters. Being in a dark silent room at night was also a common trigger. I guess because the quake had hit in early, silent, dark morning. A passing truck outside might trigger fear and anxiety, even while one knows it is irrational. A sort of automatic unwilling hypervigilance. Not actively expecting and searching for possible dangers, but anything reminding of the original threat starting mind and body alarm systems. The experience made a deeper mark on me because of worry about our children. I was later back myself in Japan, and while being prepared for new quakes, I didn't worry about them, even if the occasional small aftershock triggered "hypervigilance". I had more flashbacks back in Sweden when my children were near and some of the aforementioned triggers occured. The occurence of flashbacks diminished by time, but I did have them regularly for about ten years, I think.

Our first day back together in our house in Sweden, there was a small quake, about 3.5 magnitude, in our area. Human perceptible quakes are rare here, and it is the only one I have clearly felt in Sweden. Coincidence, kind of ironic, but a bit unnerving at the time.

The Kobe quake was almost ten years before the big tsunami in the Indian Ocean (where many Swedes were killed), so the reaction when we got home varied a bit. Some understood that it had been a scary experience, many did not.

My thoughts go out to those who lost family members and friends in the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and other natural disasters.

However many who die in natural disasters, some humans' greed and hunger for power probably kills more.


  1. I had no idea you lived in Japan let alone were there during that earth quake. Fascinating to read the details you recollect, and weird that you experienced a quake on returning to Sweden.

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