Kobe's Political Aftershock: Defiant Japanese

TWO days after a terrible earthquake rumbled through the Japanese port city of Kobe, killing more than 6,000 people and destroying his five-story apartment house, a rage was born inside Sojiro Kawamura.

He and hundreds of other people from his neighborhood crowded into a small park amid the chilly, incendiary chaos of the Jan. 17 quake. Here they were, Mr. Kawamura thought to himself, citizens of one of the world's great economic powers, and there was no help from the government. ''Four hundred people did not have anything to eat,'' he recalls. ''I was so outraged. That gave me power to work for the people.''

Six months later, Kawamura has become the leader of a hundred or so Kobe residents who still live in the park. They have built their own temporary housing with help from domestic and foreign charities, rather than move into distant, municipally built accommodations.

Their collection of tiny houses has the communal, defiant spirit of a squatter settlement.

With a long, gray beard and a distant, reflective manner, Kawamura is a cross between a civic leader and an agitator. He says he would like to build a new apartment house, except that paying off a new mortgage would force him to quadruple the rents he would charge his tenants, something he says he will not do.

So he is prepared to wait several years until he can find an affordable way to rebuild.

In the meantime Kawamura organizes self-help programs for his fellow survivors and prods the citizens and government of Kobe, as he puts it, ''to make a thorough review of postwar development in this country.''

What may have been most profoundly shaken by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, as the disaster is referred to here, is not buildings but attitudes and values. Angered by the loss of life, residents are loudly criticizing the rapid, commerce-oriented development of Kobe, arguing that city officials have long neglected disaster prevention in favor of high-profile development projects.

Citizens complain

In the aftermath of the quake, critics complain, planners guiding reconstruction efforts have ignored citizens' views. Japanese officials are known for their paternalistic, bureaucrat-knows-best management style - an attitude that some Kobe residents now seem reluctant to tolerate.

If this attitudinal shift jells into a more assertive citizenry in Kobe and its environs, it may one day be seen as part of a wider phenomenon in contemporary Japan. In recent years, ordinary Japanese have taken several actions suggesting that they want to recast the way this country is run. In 1993, for instance, voters rejected the dominant political party of the post-war era, introducing a period of political confusion that has yet to be resolved.

Women, too, have been demanding equal treatment, especially in the workplace, a movement that would overturn a system that keeps men working long hours at the office while women stay home. Some commentators have even suggested the allegedly criminal activities of the Aum Shinri Kyo group, accused of the March subway gas incident, are a reflection of Japanese desires to change their system of efficient but elitist government.

Whatever is happening in their hearts and minds, these days Kobe and the surrounding earthquake-affected area residents are fully engaged in the task of rebuilding. Kobe itself is a city that wrap artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude may want to visit immediately - it seems every third or fourth building is swathed in scaffolding and fabric in the manner of Germany's Reichstag. In the case of Kobe, the wrapping protects people from falling debris from reconstruction.

Elsewhere, the city is like a slow-motion, diesel-powered Jurassic Park. Huge, earth-moving vehicles use their mechanized jaws to tear down condemned buildings, gradually completing what the quake initiated with jolting suddenness.

But for all the effort that is going into Kobe's reconstruction, the city's nickname - Kobe Inc., a play on Japan Inc. and a tribute to smooth, corporate-style municipal management - is now mocked by Kawamura and others.

''The fact is that the government has ignored its responsibilities and done the same thing as a private corporation,'' says Kazuo Hayakawa, a former engineering professor at Kobe University who has long criticized city planning here. ''They have done only profitable projects - the damage results from their [past] housing policy.''

''There is no denying,'' editorialized the Asahi newspaper last week, ''that in their zeal for large-scale development projects, the local governments [in Kobe and neighboring towns and cities] neglected improving the infrastructure in old urban areas, leading to unnecessarily large damage by the quake.''

Indications of inadequate safety preparations by city managers have come to light during investigations into the lack of water after the earthquake. Not only did refugees go thirsty, but buildings burned as a result.

Japanese cities are supposed to maintain evacuation areas with earthquake-resistant water tanks. Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo with a population of 3.3 million, has 100 such facilities; none were built for the 1.5 million people of Kobe.

The city had, however, constructed 968 underground reservoirs for fire-fighting. Mr. Hayakawa alleges that many were empty because of poor maintenance. Yoshihiro Toda of the Kobe City Fire Department denies that charge, but acknowledges that the reservoirs were ''insufficient.'' Indeed, in the neighboring city of Nishinomiya, which has a fourth of the population of Kobe, there are almost as many reservoirs. Nishinomiya also suffered far fewer deaths by burning.

The complaints are not limited to what city officials did or did not do before the quake. The process of rehabilitation has been remarkable in many ways: Almost all the region's train and subway lines are back on track, once destroyed shopping streets and underground malls are open, and both prefectural and municipal governments have just announced comprehensive reconstruction plans. According to official statistics, fewer than 17,000 people remain in temporary shelters, down from more than 300,000.

But some citizens feel the planning process has been too heavy-handed; they resent what could be called the enthusiasm of the bureaucrats.

Merits of the earthquake

Officials in many countries capitalize on urban calamities like fires and earthquakes by turning them into opportunities to widen roads, rezone districts, and create parks - projects that would generate too much discord and backlash if they were attempted in different circumstances. Japanese law bars anyone from rebuilding for two months after a major earthquake precisely in order to give bureaucrats time to consider how to improve things in the future.

''The merit of the quake,'' says city planning official Akira Hanaki, ''is that we had been faced with difficulty in proceeding with our original city plans, especially in some densely housed areas.... Now the quake has swept through those areas. This is an opportunity to make them disaster-resistant and build better structures.''

Mr. Hanaki was referring to Kobe's Nagata ward, a crowded industrial quarter populated by low-income Korean immigrants and members of Japan's Buraku ethnic group. Fires in Nagata burned for 36 hours after the temblor struck, destroying 4,000 buildings and 700 lives, as fire-fighters contended with blocked roads and short water supply.

In February, officials unveiled a rebuilding plan for Nagata that included a network of widened roads, two parks, and a high-rise commercial and residential development. To the residents of Nagata, the plan looked like an updated version of a 20-year-old rezoning program that would have required roadside property owners to cede 24 percent of their land without compensation.

The city argued that the renovation would raise property values, but the residents rejected the original proposal. Efforts to improve infrastructure in Nagata were frozen until the earthquake, or, in the view of many ward residents, until it was too late.

Sang Thae Lee, an activist who is gathering the views of Nagata residents in order to present them to city planners, is determined to make officials listen. ''We have to take the initiative,'' says a wiry and intense Mr. Lee, ''otherwise the city will act on its own.''

''I think the city is responsible for offering concrete plans for the rehabilitation of this area,'' he continues. ''I even want them to come up with options - three or four different plans - for residents to choose from.''

No public hearings

If Lee gets his way, it would be unusual to say the least. So far, as Hayakawa puts it: ''In the whole process there have been no voices from the people, no public hearings.''

City planner Hanaki says that now that rehabilitation plans are in place, the time has come for officials to listen to the people. One thing is for sure. They want to be heard.

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