TOKYO — JAPAN'S legendary earthquake preparedness was severely tested on Jan. 17 when a quake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale hit several western cities near dawn, igniting devastating fires and leaving more than 1,600 dead.
Local community reaction was swift in digging out trapped residents and fighting fires, but national assistance was criticized for being slow, and questions were raised about setting higher standards for earthquake-resistent structures. Many Japanese standards for preparedness and engineering were designed for earthquakes of lesser magnitude.
Besides the port city of Kobe, severe damage was reported in Osaka and Kyoto. Experts say the destructiveness of the quake was due to its shallow epicenter, just 12 miles beneath the island of Awaji in Japan's Inland Sea.
The worst earthquake in nearly half a century twisted road and rail links and toppled buildings.
Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama set up emergency headquarters in Tokyo and ordered Self Defense Force (SDF) troops into Kobe to help residents battle blazes in the downtown area, but the government-backed TV station, NHK, reported that national officials did not show up until a half-day after the quake.
The last earthquake of comparable destructive power hit the northwestern prefecture of Fukui in 1948, destroying 36,000 homes and killing about 5,000 people. But the earthquake that bears most direct comparison to this latest disaster is the ``Great Kanto Earthquake'' that flattened much of the Tokyo area in 1923, killing 140,000 people in the fires that swept through the city afterward.
After the Kobe quake, private television stations turned into public service stations, helping people around Japan find relatives and announcing the names of the dead.
According to reports on NHK, residents knew where to go after the quake because of years of evacuation training. Every Sept. 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto quake, the nation conducts extensive earthquake drills.
Local rescue efforts, with community organizations pitching in, appeared to have kept public panic low. The Red Cross and SDF were not in evidence, probably because most transportation links were shut down.
A major expressway between Kobe and Osaka, built in 1966, tipped on its side, crushing cars, trucks, and a few houses. According to reports from the scene, the older highway was ripped off its pylon as the top-heavy structure fell to the ground. Traffic was light at the time of the earthquake, reducing the death toll from direct damage to roads and train lines.
Japan's second-worst urban earthquake disaster this century has shattered the complacent attitude of many Japanese toward the nation's readiness to deal with catastrophes of this magnitude.
After the Los Angeles earthquake in January 1994, Japanese seismologists and engineers who examined the damage said that Japanese earthquake-engineering standards were much higher than the US, and that Japanese cities would survive similar or greater shocks in better condition than Los Angeles.
Kazuo Oike of Kyoto University, who predicted 10 years ago that the region was due for a major earthquake, warned the Kobe earthquake might set off a ``chain reaction'' of earthquakes.
While many of the nearly 10,000 buildings that were damaged or destroyed were older wooden constructions, many newer high-rise buildings collapsed as well, including the Kobe police headquarters, the Kobe municipal hospital, and numerous office and apartment buildings.
People interviewed on Japanese television said they could hear people calling for help from the rubble of buildings.
In the early hours of Jan. 17, Japanese television showed scenes of fires raging through a section of downtown Kobe, a city of 1.4 million known for its elegant Western-style architecture and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Firefighters struggled to put out fires despite broken water mains and roads jammed with stalled and abandoned cars. The National Police said that over 1,000 people were reported missing and over 6,000 injured. The toll was expected to rise as communications were restored.
During the day, there were few signs of organized activity to clear the rubble. Traditional wooden houses appeared to have flattened under the weight of tiled roofs. Scenes broadcast on Japanese television showed whole residential blocks transformed into a chaos of tile, wood, and downed electric utility wires.
Power failures left 1 million households without electricity in the area and nearly the same number without telephone service. Gas was shut off to another 425,000 households to avoid the outbreak of more fires.
More than 16 million people live in the region directly affected by the earthquake, known as the Kansai region, which includes Hyogo, Osaka, and Kyoto prefectures. In Kyoto and Nara, Japan's medieval capitals and the site of some of its major cultural relics, the earthquake toppled Buddhist statues and broke plate glass in office buildings.
No cost estimates of the disaster to the Japanese economy were available. The United States dollar gained value on currency markets in expectations that new demands would be placed on the yen as insurers begin to cover repairs.