KOBE, JAPAN — NEARLY a week after a giant earthquake struck western Japan leaving about 5,000 people dead, residents of the port city of Kobe and other areas have begun the difficult business of rebuilding their lives.
While criticism mounts against the Japanese government's fumbling response to the Jan. 17 quake, inside the disaster zone community spirit has asserted itself in a time-worn Japanese tradition of coping with calamitous natural disasters.
''My mother often told me what it was like in 1945 [when Japanese cities were bombed]'' says Shuji Takahashi, who owns a trading company in the hard-hit town of Itami. ''Now I can see what it is like to have to start all over again.''
Mr. Takahashi spent four days searching without result for two friends who are still missing in Kobe. On Saturday, like thousands of others Japanese, he decided to volunteer his services to the victims and showed up at Kobe City Hall to work as a translator.
During the day on Saturday, trains and ferries to Kobe were packed with people bringing supplies into the city, some to friends and relatives, others to anybody who needed them. Maki Kurahashi and Kumiko Osada from Osaka waited hours to carry in food packed in a ski bag. For both, it was a first-time experience as volunteers.
Japanese critics have focused on the government's belated response to the emergency and the suspicion that Japan's corruption-riddled construction industry may be partly to blame for the damage that was done to new buildings.
Although some 36,000 police, firefighters, and soldiers belonging to Japan's military, known as the Self Defense Force (SDF), were on hand by the weekend, bureaucratic indecision in the first days after the quake added immeasurably to the suffering.
It was late afternoon on Jan. 17 before Japanese officials in the damaged prefecture were ready to dispatch troops, although a handful of SDF soldiers launched rescue activities on their own initiative earlier in the day. Japanese Defense Agency officials have admitted that they have no emergency relief program. ''Nobody thought such a powerful earthquake would hit the Hanshin region,'' one flustered official told the Japan Times newspaper.
According to Takao Nishikawa of Tokyo Metropolitan University, Japanese construction-engineering specialists will recommend that Japan establish an organization along the lines of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, which organized crisis response to the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles last year.
In the disaster area, however, people are concentrating less on politics than on survival. The mood is remarkably upbeat.
''Before the earthquake, I hardly knew my neighbors,'' says Shizuyo Shimizu. ''This has made me realize how valuable communication can be.''
The Shimizus and their former landlords and upstairs neighbors, the Nishimuras, camp out together in the lobby of Kobe City Hall, sharing donated blankets and futons.
Separated only by makeshift cardboard dividers, the 1,000 refugees who have staked out spots on the cold, granite floor of the municipal building talk quietly, play card games, or draw their blankets over their heads to sleep. Few of them have any idea how long they will be there. ''We will stay until the city tells us we must go,'' Mrs. Shimizu says.
''Because we are Japanese, we help each other,'' boasts Manabu Shinya, an official in the Kobe mayor's office. ''There are no homeless in this earthquake.''
Nonetheless, with damage estimates ranging from about $30 billion to $60 billion, according to the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, and 300,000 refugees with nowhere to go, the next few months are likely to challenge even the most generous of civic intentions.
The cleanup has begun, but the scope of damage is vast.
The 13 miles between Kobe and its eastern suburb of Nishinomiya is a gauntlet of buildings either collapsed or leaning at angles over the No. 2 National Highway, one of three roads out of the city. After midnight, families walk in the direction of Isaka with packed bags. Traffic is gridlocked along the entire route.
On Saturday night, while ambulances still raced through the dark and smoldering streets, the thump of pile drivers reverberated with the sirens. A section of expressway that had collapsed in the center of Kobe's once elegant waterfront was being cleared.
Over the weekend, workers began constructing the first of 1,000 temporary homes for the earthquake refugees, and by yesterday a few had moved into several hundred tents provided by the Japanese SDF and the US Air Force base in Yokota, Japan. The nearby prefecture of Osaka has pledged to provide shelter for at least 10,000 people.
But even an optimistic estimate of accommodations promised so far accounts for only 1 out of every 7 refugees. That leaves most people staying indefinitely in high school gyms and other public buildings, without adequate sanitary or medical services.
*Miharu Hasegawa contributed to this report.