Japan’s Sudden Disaster—How People Coped
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN JAPAN
ONE minute Kobe, Japan, was a thriving port city of 1,500,000. But in 20 seconds, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale reduced much of it to ruins. Tens of thousands of houses and buildings were destroyed or damaged, and over 300,000 people were left homeless.
Disaster struck January 17, 1995, exactly one year to the day after an earthquake badly damaged Northridge, California, U.S.A., and killed 61 people. The Kobe quake released about twice as much seismic energy as that one did. The death toll of more than 5,500 made it the deadliest quake in Japan since 1923, when some 143,000 were killed in the great quake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama.
A Moment of Horror
At 5:46 on that fateful morning, Ryuji was delivering newspapers in the center of Kobe City. It was still dark. Suddenly there was a sound like a train going over an elevated railway. The road and buildings rolled just like waves of the sea. Then all the lights went off.
Elevated highways toppled, dumping vehicles onto the roads below. Railway tracks were bent like clay sticks, and trains derailed. Old wooden buildings collapsed, and two-story apartments suddenly looked like single-story buildings. Most residents of Kobe were jarred from their sleep.
Fires immediately broke out, and whole blocks burned. Firefighters watched helplessly, since the quake had cut off water supplies. In a moment, the myth of earthquake-proof construction had been shattered.
Narrow Escapes and Tragedies
In the area directly affected by the quake, there were 3,765 of Jehovah’s Witnesses associated with 76 congregations. By the morning following the quake, it was established that 13 Witnesses and 2 unbaptized associates had been killed. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) At that time the death toll released by the police was 1,812, but within a week it rose to over 5,000. Since the Witnesses had quickly located those associated with their congregations, their death toll remained the same.
Misao’s husband had left early for work. “About an hour later, the house shook,” said Misao. “Roofing tiles fell around me. The large center tile of the roof hit the pillow where my husband’s head had rested just an hour before.” A chest of drawers and a bookcase fell against each other just over Misao. This saved her from being buried under the roofing tiles.
A mewing cat woke Hiromasa, a 16-year-old schoolboy. As he let the cat out, the quake hit. When he returned he found his mother under the television set and bookcase. How relieved he was to find her alive! Hiromasa borrowed a flashlight from a neighbor and freed his mother. Thousands have stories of narrow escapes. But other Witnesses suffered painful tragedies.
Hiroshi and Kazu Kaneko were buried under the rubble of their apartment. Members of the Christian congregation rushed to the site to help them. It was not until 10:00 a.m. that Hiroshi was freed and taken to the hospital. But Kazu was dead when she was later pulled out.
Miyoko Teshima, 24 years of age and baptized only about two years, had the goal of the full-time ministry. On the morning of the quake, she was sleeping on the first floor of her apartment building when its second floor collapsed. Miyoko was buried under the rafters and beams. Her parents and neighbors tried to remove the rubble but could not. Her mother, who is a Bible student, contacted Jehovah’s Witnesses, who came to help.
When Miyoko was pulled free after about seven hours, she was still alive. Three Christian elders took turns with the doctor and a nurse in giving heart massage, but Miyoko died. Her father, who had opposed her faith, was moved by the efforts of the Witnesses to save his daughter, and he consented to her earlier request to have a Witness funeral.
Takao Jinguji, a Christian elder, lived on the first floor of an old apartment building with his wife and their daughter. “When the quake hit,” he said, “the floor above crumbled on us, and I was trapped beneath a bookshelf. Eventually, I was able to pull myself clear of it and began trying to get out. Suddenly I heard a voice. It was a Witness neighbor, who had come searching for us.”
When Takao finally made his way outside, he saw fire from surrounding buildings spreading to his apartment. So he crawled back into the rubble and tried desperately to pull his wife out. But it was too late. Eiko , his wife of 26 years, and his daughter Naomi were killed. In spite of this, he began helping other members of his congregation. “There was nothing else I could do for my family,” he said later, “so I turned my attention to helping others. I was relieved to find that everyone else in our congregation was safe.”
A Desperate Situation
Thousands took refuge in schools and public buildings. Fearing aftershocks, others camped outside or slept in their cars. Railways and highways were torn to pieces, and the roads available for transporting relief supplies were clogged with thousands of vehicles. For days many had little or nothing to eat. But remarkably, there were no reports of looting, and many shared what little food they had.
“This is like after the Second World War,” said an elderly man wrapped in a blanket, with tears running down his cheeks. The Japanese prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, surveyed the damage and reported: “I have seen nothing like it. This is far beyond anybody’s imagination.”
Witnesses Immediately Respond
When Keiji Koshiro, a Christian elder, visited downtown Kobe the morning of the quake and saw the terrible devastation, he returned home and organized the local congregation to cook food for fellow Christians who had been more seriously affected. By evening, he was delivering food and drink by car to congregations in the center of Kobe. The following morning, more food and water was provided. Because traffic jams were encountered, the Witnesses organized a convoy of 16 motorcycles to deliver the relief supplies.
Many others also immediately took the initiative to search out and help their Christian brothers. Tomoyuki Tsuboi and another elder set out on motorcycles for Ashiya, a city next to Kobe that was also severely damaged. At the Kingdom Hall in downtown Ashiya, they found that the traveling overseer, Yoshinobu Kumada, had already set up a relief center there.
A telephone contact was made to alert brothers of the need, and soon supplies were being gathered. Nine cars carrying blankets, food, and water were soon heading toward Ashiya. These supplies were delivered to two Kingdom Halls in the city, where between 40 and 50 persons had taken refuge. Others found shelter in homes of fellow believers. The following day Witnesses in a nearby area prepared meals for 800. The food provided for those in need was abundant, so the Witnesses shared it with neighbors who were in need.
Throughout the area affected by the quake, Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately came to the aid of their fellow believers. This impressed many observers. A week after the quake, a helicopter pilot approached a Witness in Yokohama and said: “I went to the disaster area on the day of the quake and spent a week there. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only ones that rushed to the site. I was deeply impressed.”
Relief Program Established
The branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located in Ebina, Japan, soon sent four representatives to the Kobe area to organize the relief work. “We immediately agreed to find Kingdom Halls that were not destroyed and to send relief supplies to them,” one representative reported. “Six halls were located, and within five hours these were filled to capacity. Other supplies were sent to two large Assembly Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses nearby.”
A bank account for the relief fund was opened, and congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Japan were informed. Within the first three business days, a million dollars was donated. The money was quickly distributed for the use of those in need.
Congregations were told they could pick up needed supplies at the designated relief centers. The elders in each congregation arranged for the distribution of supplies to the needy members of their respective congregations. Unbelieving family members of the Witnesses were not ignored. The father of a Christian elder in the affected area—who previously had been unfavorable to Jehovah’s Witnesses—was heard bragging over the phone to a relative: “People from my son’s religion come and help us!”
More Than Material Assistance
Immediately, Christian meetings were organized. One congregation gathered at a park for their meeting on Tuesday, the day of the quake. By Sunday most congregations in the affected area held their regular Watchtower Study, either in small groups or in Kingdom Halls that had been spared severe damage. Appropriately, the December 1, 1994, Watchtower, which was studied that week, discussed the privilege of using resources “to help victims of natural disasters.” A woman at the meeting commented: “For the first time, we are at the receiving end of relief work. I am filled with gratitude that I can’t express in words. Once we are back to normal, I will do my part at the giving end.”
Representatives from the branch office used motorcycles to visit the areas hardest hit. “It was touching to see the brothers in tears,” one of them reported. “They would tell us, ‘We are not crying because we have lost everything but because our hearts are touched by you brothers who came to visit us all the way from Ebina.’”
Within 24 hours of the quake, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., as well as branch offices in other parts of the world, sent messages expressing concern. Many more such messages were received in the days that followed. A fax from the Wŏnju West Congregation, Republic of Korea, which had lost 15 members in a firebombing two years earlier, was especially moving.* It concluded: “The pains of our brothers in Kobe are our pains and sorrows. Please remember, just as we have experienced, you are not alone when you are in distress. Dear brothers, do not give up!”
The branch representatives made arrangements for continued spiritual support. For example, additional traveling overseers were temporarily assigned to the Kobe area to provide encouragement. And Christian elders from other parts of Japan were also invited to visit Kobe for a week or so at a time to provide spiritual and emotional support to those who were suffering.
With such care and encouragement from fellow believers worldwide, the Witnesses in the affected area maintained a positive and appreciative attitude. After attending the first meeting following the quake, one Witness said: “We were a bit anxious until yesterday, since we did not have anywhere to go. But coming here and hearing the kind arrangements that have been made for our benefit, including laundry service, provisions for taking baths, and the use of the Assembly Halls as temporary residences, has really relieved us of our anxieties. This truly is God’s organization!”
Indeed, putting emphasis on spiritual riches has helped the Witnesses to cope. A woman in her early 20’s said: “My mother taught me from the time I was three to put my trust in Jehovah. Her training and that received through the Christian congregation has helped me to bear this distressing experience.”
Organized to Rebuild
About 350 houses of the Witnesses were severely damaged or destroyed; a hundred of these were privately owned. More than 630 additional houses of the Witnesses required minor repairs. Also, ten Kingdom Halls were so badly damaged that they were unusable.
Quickly, arrangements were made to reconstruct Kingdom Halls for the congregations that had lost theirs. And the 11 Regional Building Committees in Japan each organized a team of 21 persons to repair the damaged houses of Witnesses.
A Sign of the Times
Earthquakes are occurring with greater frequency. “Last year alone,” noted Maclean’s magazine, “there were several quakes [in Japan] bigger than the one in Kobe.” One was a major quake with a magnitude of 8.1, but it struck a sparsely populated area in the north.
Such an increase in earthquakes does not surprise Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why, right after the quake shook his house in Kobe, five-year-old Atsushi marched around saying: “There will be earthquakes in one place after another”! (Mark 13:8) He had learned this prophecy from his mother. Jesus Christ included earthquakes as part of “the sign of [his] presence and of the conclusion of the system of things.” Other parts of that sign include wars, food shortages, pestilences, and the cooling off of the love of the greater number.—Matthew 24:3-14; 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
The Kobe quake is only further evidence that we are living in the last days of this world. Happily, it is part of Jesus’ sign now undergoing fulfillment that proves that soon this world will be replaced by a righteous new one.—1 John 2:17.
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Takao Jinguji lost his family in these ruins
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Destroyed railway station
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Witnesses quickly set up a relief program for victims