What Was the Great Hanshin Earthquake?

By Elizabeth Ehrenpreis on December 9 2019 in Environment

Collapse of a shrine in Japan during an earthquake. Japan is a highly earthquake-prone country. Editorial credit: Suttisak Soralump / Shutterstock.com.
Collapse of a shrine in Japan during an earthquake. Japan is a highly earthquake-prone country. Editorial credit: Suttisak Soralump / Shutterstock.com.

On January 17, 1995, an earthquake with a magnitude of seven on the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale hit Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture and became known as Japan’s second most severe earthquake of the twentieth century. The earthquake made the greatest impact on the Hanshin region, recording a total loss of 6,434 lives, with 4,600 of those lost in one of Japan’s major cities, Kobe.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake, more commonly known outside of Japan as the Kobe Earthquake, was an inland shallow earthquake. According to Business Insider, shallow earthquakes tend to do greater damage than deeper ones due to the shorter distance the seismic waves travel to make an impact. The quake’s devastation was widespread, not only in terms of loss of life but also material damage, with 400,000 buildings irreparably damaged and 300 fires across significant portions of Kobe. Photos of damage to the highways and subways were the most circulated in the aftermath of the quake. Reportedly, the people of Japan had previously believed these structures to be essentially earthquake-proof, and the extent of the damage was shocking and unsettling.

The sizable quake itself wasn’t the only frightening incident: of the aftershocks that came in the aftermath, almost seventy-five of them were strong enough to be felt by residents, leaving them afraid of further harm and damage.

While the Great Hanshin Earthquake was a calamitous event, the community response to the quake made a long-lasting positive impact: the number of volunteers who assisted in the wake of the disaster created the opportunity for volunteerism to emerge as a significant aspect of Japanese civic life. The event catalyzed disaster planning reform, which included massive efforts at restructuring bridges and buildings to be sturdier and earthquake-proof, as well as re-working Japan’s disaster response protocols to make emergency responses quicker and more efficient. These efforts paid off significantly during the 2004 Chūetsu earthquake, rated 6.6 in magnitude: while the impact was still profound, the loss of life was far less severe.

Even twenty-four years later, the Great Hanshin Earthquake is still remembered by the Japanese people. Every December, Kobe holds a light festival called Kobe Luminarie, which features a light installation donated by the Italian government and produced by Valerio Festi and Hirokazu Imaoka. Each of the lights in the display is hand-painted, and the installation represents the restoration of hope, even in the darkness, for the Japanese people. Although the event was initially planned as a singular memorial event, My Modern Met reports that it was so popular, it became an annual festival.

Additionally, in 2000, Japanese author Haruki Murakami published a collection of short stories representing a variety of tales of Japanese citizens who were impacted by the catastrophe, titled After The Quake. This further memorialized the way the Great Hanshin Earthquake altered Japanese consciousness as a whole and paid homage to the people who were lost in the devastation. Although the quake was an undeniable tragedy, the aftermath serves as a testament to the courage and tenacity of the human spirit.

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