Thursday, January 20, 2005

Weekend warriors

It's easy to see how quite a few people spent the holidays: hurting themselves, probably on the ski slopes. While it's rare to see anyone using crutches in Tokyo, lately I've seen quite a few young guys, and a few girls as well, hobbling along on them. From conversations with some of my students, it sounds like skiing is a once-a-year "hobby" for a lot of them. In other words, they hit the slopes once during the winter, and that earns them their "ski badge." I wonder if those who were injured ever go back to the slopes.

Domino effect

The funniest thing happened yesterday. Well, maybe not for the guy it happened to, but I was bent in half laughing as I watched the event unfold.

As I went through the train station ticket gate and exited the station, I looked up just in time to watch a young guy park his bicycle in the middle of what must have been 100 bicycles. Just as he turned to walk away, he apparently bumped one of the bikes. . .and the domino effect began. One by one, to the guy's horror, bikes began to fall. It all happened so fast that I didn't have time to whip out my new digital camera and take a movie, but the movie's still running in my head.

Amazingly, nobody else seemed to pay any attention. In Japan, people try to avoid embarrassing themselves or others, and I've learned not to offer help, so I just walked away (laughing on the inside).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

10-year anniversary of Kobe earthquake

Today marked the 10th anniversary of the "Great Hanshin" earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan on January 17, 1995 at 5:46 a.m. Over 6,400 lives were lost, and countless others affected by the 7.3 quake that leveled much of Kobe.

In solemn ceremonies under rainy, wintry skies, people huddled under umbrellas to light candles for each of those who died. It was a particularly difficult anniversary because of its close proximity to the Indian Ocean tsunami that snuffed out so many lives December 26. People here have been transfixed on that disaster, and feel a compelling need to ensure that such a devastating loss of life never occurs again. This milestone anniversary comes on the heels of that enormous tragedy, and the Japanese psyche is resonating with anguish.

Seattle and Kobe have been sister cities for 48 years. In the Seattle Times today:
Yesterday, at exactly 12:46 p.m., 60 people gathered beneath a cherry tree at Seattle Center to mark the 10th anniversary — to the minute — of the 7.3-magnitude earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed 6,433 people. . . At the moment of the anniversary, the crowd lit candles and bowed heads for a minute of silence. Then, led by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, each person lined up to ring the bronze 600-pound Kobe Bell, a 1962 World's Fair gift from Kobe to Seattle.
Shortly after the Kobe quake in 1995, nearly 3,000 people came to ring the bell in memory of the dead. The bell rang once for each life lost, and the service lasted for four days.

Even though I don't understand or speak Japanese, I have watched the constant stream of news stories on TV about both the tsunami and Kobe disasters. There have been so many feature stories showing the Kobe aftermath, and it's not hard to imagine the loss of so many lives when so many blocks of businesses, homes and apartments either burned to the ground or collapsed entirely. It must have been a terrifying scene to see firsthand. One of the teachers at work was living in Kobe when the earthquake struck, but fortunately for her, she made it out alive. She said it all felt surreal, and that time seemed to stop for a few moments until she realized what had just happened.

Japan is one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, and there will unquestionably be more earthquakes. Despite that fact, since moving to Japan I've noticed an overall sense of denial about it happening again--that is, until the December tsunami. Maybe that horrific tragedy will prompt Japan to finally work out a viable disaster plan. They need to get better prepared, as the Niigata earthquake in October proved. It took an achingly long time before supplies reached the victims of that earthquake. They were without blankets, food, and shelter for way too many days and weeks. Many families had to live inside their cars, and one-third of those people developed life-threatening blood clots.

It seems that lessons should have been learned from the Kobe earthquake in 1995, but Niigata proved that it's still a situation where the government is ill-prepared to handle such an emergency. Lives are unnecessarily lost when survivors are not reached in time to save them. The government needs more provisions, better planning, and the ability to move quickly in such events. Every minute counts. Every life is precious. How many more earthquakes will it take before Japan is able to respond immediately?

While Japan is on the leading edge for its tsunami early-warning system, not all earthquakes produce tsunami's. It's imperative that disaster preparations are firmly in place so that when an earthquake hits, the government is ready to act in an instant. There needs to be a full-force campaign to get people ready for the next earthquake. Denial time is over.