Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Window Into Modern Japan

Currently I'm in Kobe, the capital of Hyogo prefecture and one of Japan's busiest ports. Because I had a friend living here, it was one of the first cities I visited when I arrived in Japan, and at the time I was struck by the energy and worldliness of the place, an impression which remains undiminished on a second visit. Kobe was one of the first Japanese ports opened to foreign ships by the new Meiji government, in 1868, and that legacy is visible all over the city, in its numerous western-style houses, sleek international hotels, and tree-lined, Europeanesque hillside neighborhoods. Kobe's international character is visible in more than just its architecture, however; the city has a large foreign population, including one of the biggest Chinese communities in Japan, English signage is much more common here than in other Japanese cities, and people not only study foreign languages, but actually use them - last night a Japanese woman sitting next to me on the train apologized to me in English when she needed to squeeze past me to put her bag on the luggage rack, something which would rarely if ever happen in Tohoku, the more inward-looking, traditionally Japanese region in which I live. Even the city's culinary calling card - its world-renowned eponymous beef - reflects its cosmopolitan heritage, the raising, slaughtering, and eating of cows not being a traditional part of Japanese culture. It's one of Japan's friendliest cities, and one of the first places I'd suggest any foreigner without much knowledge of the culture or language visit if they wish to experience a soft landing in the country.

Beneath the bustling cosmopolitan surface, however, there's a bit of a darker resonance to Kobe. Like many of Japan's cities it was pretty well-leveled by repeated bombing raids during World War II, but whereas other Japanese communities have somewhat lost their sense of the fragility of civilization in the largely prosperous decades since the war, in Kobe it remains palpable. This is because of the devastation the city suffered due to what in Japan is referred to as the Great Hanshin earthquake, and elsewhere as the Kobe earthquake, which struck the city at 5:46 AM on the morning of January 17th, 1995. The quake was one of the most powerful to hit Japan in recorded history, and its epicenter was only 20 kilometers from downtown Kobe. The quake killed more than 6,000 people, damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 buildings, and caused more than $100 billion in damage. At the time, this amount was equal to 2.5% of Japan's annual GDP, making it, according to the Guinness book of world records, the costliest natural disaster in human history. The city has never fully recovered - even today it has not regained its status as Japan's busiest port, and wrecked buildings, their owners killed or otherwise unaccounted for in the aftermath of the disaster, remain strewn like forgotten grave sites throughout the rebuilt city. Part of a collapsed pier in the port district, which suffered particularly heavy damage, was left unreconstructed as a memorial to the disaster:

But worse even than the economic and human costs was the psychological toll inflicted on the country by the earthquake and in particular, by its aftermath. The Japanese government, which initially refused offers of humanitarian aid from foreign nations on the grounds that the language barrier and lack of Japanese medical licensing would prevent foreign volunteers from assisting, was widely criticized for incompetence, mismanagement, and bureaucratic lethargy in the wake of its slow, confused response, and political disillusionment grew worse than ever. Even worse, people began to doubt one of the very underpinnings of modern Japanese society. Ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan had put its faith in technological progress, and that faith had been rewarded by unprecedented growth and unchallenged status as Asia's premier economic power, both before and eventually after World War II. People believed in technology's power to make life predictable, secure, and safe. In the case of something like an earthquake, they expected technology to give them early warnings, to minimize the damage, and to make recovery quick and easy. None of those things happened. The early warning systems failed. Buildings, highways, and bridges that had supposedly been built to be "earthquake-proof" collapsed. Artificial islands in Kobe harbor, once a symbol of humanity's ability to bend nature to its will, sunk into the sea when the soil beneath them liquefied. And the government's short-term and long-term safety nets failed after all this happened. Hundreds of people were left homeless and without access to food or medicine in the immediate aftermath, and municipal and national authorities proved overmatched by the task of rebuilding the shattered city (only 3% of the real estate of which was insured prior to the earthquake). For a people who felt like they had "made it" - had achieved the material security that wealth and technology can provide - it was a painful and unsettling lesson that the world can never be made completely safe.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular contemporary novelist, explored this theme in his short story collection after the quake, published in 1997. In each of the stories, the earthquake and the devastation it caused serve as a recurring symbol of the gnawing dread and anxiety that remain beneath the seemingly placid surface of modern Japanese life, and for each of the major characters, some aspect of the disaster connects to some difficult, painful, or insecure aspect of their own lives. Walking around the Kobe earthquake Memorial Park, you can see what he's getting at.

Kobe was not a city particularly rich in historical sights even before the widespread destruction it suffered during World War II. But as perhaps the city most emblematic of modern Japan, with the visceral evocation of all the society's fears and aspirations it provides, it is still worth visiting. If you don't leave it thinking a bit more deeply about what concepts like progress and civilization mean, you haven't paid full attention while you were there.

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