KOBE — When the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake struck on Jan. 17, 1995, this port city in western Japan was devastated in an instant, leaving 6,437 either dead or missing and about $100 billion worth of infrastructures damaged.

Today there is not a trace of the tragic event in this city nestled in between mountains and the sea. Kobe is once more an important residential and manufacturing zone in Hyogo, one of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Forming what looks like a comb along the coastline, more than a hundred piers have helped the city return to being one of the largest ports in the country and Asia.

Recovery efforts in Kobe, as well as disaster management measures being employed in the country have gathered worldwide attention. What sets apart Japan’s disaster-management practice, though, is not just its technology breakthroughs, but the active involvement of all stakeholders – citizens, schools, non-profit organizations, businesses and the government- in the creation of disaster-resilient communities.

Indeed, the Philippines and other Asian countries have plenty to learn from the pioneering country. Weeks ago, moderate to strong quakes struck various parts of the Philippines and New Zealand, countries that are both located along the same seismic belt as Japan.

To promote disaster awareness in the region, the Japan Foundation organized an East Asia Future Leaders Programme under its Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) last January. Fourteen participants from 17 countries in Asia visited government offices and community organizations in Japan to gain practical knowledge from their experiences. This writer and Charmaine Villamil, science research specialist of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), were the JENESYS participants for the Philippines.

Research statistics reveal an increasing trend in the occurrence of natural disasters worldwide. In Japan, disaster experts infer that a massive earthquake is bound to hit the country in the next 30 years. It is for this very reason that local communities have taken a conscious effort and holistic approach toward disaster management, acknowledging that while the need may not be urgent, it is real and impending.

Shinichiro Oe, an officer of the Disaster Management and Planning Bureau of the Hyogo Prefectural Government, explains that the 1995 event changed the “conventional system” of government in many ways. He says that locals now take an active role in disaster awareness and preparedness because as survivors they know better about the risks involved.

Himself a survivor, Oe recalls that about 1.4 million people had participated in volunteer activities after the earthquake; some 75 percent of that quake’s victims were rescued by neighbors.

In addition to “self-support” and “public support,” implementation of the reconstruction plan undertaken in Kobe (also referred to as the Hyogo Phoenix Plan) zeroed in on “mutual support” or the collaboration between and among citizens and officials. It aimed at promoting “harmonious coexistence between people and nature, people and people, and people and society.” The plan that started in July 1995 and ended in 2005 was composed of 1,358 projects, amounting to a total of $163 billion.

Local voluntary disaster management organizations referred to as “Bousai-Fukushi Community” were established in Kobe after the earthquake. Supported by the Kobe City Government, a total of 189 organizations were created at each elementary school area, covering 90 percent of the city.

In Meishin, Kobe, for instance, residents, local businesses and the school district formed a community organization called the Meishin Disaster Welfare Community (MDWC). The group conducts disaster management activities such as earthquake emergency and rescue drills, fire fighting drills, tsunami evacuation drills, first-aid use, and local vulnerability mapping through local tours.

MDWC’s members are mostly senior citizens who had experienced the 1995 earthquake. Clad in MDWC’s blue uniform, chairman Tamotsu Kamogawa says it’s important to pass on the experiences to the younger generation so that the lessons learned from the earthquake would not be forgotten.

To enable students to protect themselves when a disaster occurs, MDWC also conducts disaster reduction education for elementary and high-school students. MDWC has even created nifty emergency hoods for children in case of an earthquake. A one-day supply of underwear, a pair of socks, towel, and bandages are sewn into these hoods, each of which sports a label indicating the child’s name, age, blood type, and parents’ contact details.

Japan has also undertaken several efforts to formalize passing on stories and lessons learned from the 1995 earthquake. For example, in Maiko High School, students are taught of a comprehensive disaster mitigation course. Seiji Suwa, a teacher in the high school, says that the course aims to help make students “think about the importance of life” and enable them to become a “survivor, supporter, and a good citizen.”

Approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education, the course is composed of several subjects such as disaster and human beings, environmental science, and social environment and disaster reduction. Guest teachers from universities and research institutions are invited to share their knowledge to students. In turn, students are required to conduct a research thesis about disaster management. They are also given opportunity to visit other countries with disaster experiences such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake memorial can also be found in Kobe. Founded in April 2002, the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution (DRI), aims to promote a “disaster reduction society” by transferring experiences and applying lessons learned from the earthquake.

The DRI office has an exhibition zone that showcases dioramas of Kobe scenes just after the earthquake and a collection of earthquake-related materials. The DRI has 170 voluntary staff and 45 storytellers — survivors who share their experiences of the earthquake to visitors. Among them is Hanutomo Nanbu, who tells visitors to value simple necessities like water that would be of much greater importance in case of emergencies.

DRI also conducts research used by the central and local governments, communities, and business enterprises in the formulation of disaster reduction policies and management actions. In addition, DRI organizes trainings for local government practitioners and provide them with practical knowledge and skills in disaster reduction based on their latest research findings.

Indeed, while Kobe is rid of any mark of the 1995 earthquake, its residents choose to remember. Often quoted by officials in disaster talks is Dr. Torahiko Terada, a physicist who said “natural and man-made disasters will strike again by the time people have forgotten about them.” – PCIJ, March 2011

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