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Japanese Premier Denies Slow Quake Aid; Toll at 4,048 : Tragedy: Murayama admits to ‘confusion’ in handling of temblor and is jeered in Parliament. More than 270,000 are displaced in worst disaster since WWII.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama today denied tardiness in dispatching troops but confessed to “confusion” in his government’s handling of this week’s killer earthquake, Japan’s worst disaster since World War II.

Criticized in Parliament for failing to learn from the lessons of the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake, Murayama insisted that one unit of Self Defense Force troops was dispatched “immediately” after an earthquake, initially reported as magnitude 7.2, struck the Kobe region of Japan on Tuesday.

“But looking back now, this (disaster) was a first experience for the government, and it can be thought that confusion occurred” in its response, he said amid loud jeers in the lower house. The jeers increased when he declared that he will “from now make judgments and implement (further) actions” to cope with the continuing near paralysis of the disaster area.

Murayama also promised to “review what needs to be reviewed” to strengthen Japan’s crisis management system.

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The prime minister made the comments after police raised the death toll to 4,048, putting the Kobe-area earthquake at the top of the list of the nation’s post-1945 disasters. It is the deadliest quake since 1923, when 140,000 people perished in Tokyo in an 8.3-magnitude temblor.

As rescue efforts continued today, 21,671 were reported injured and 727 missing and presumed buried in rubble. More than 1,500 bodies pulled from the rubble remained unidentified, police said. The ranks of refugees had swelled to 270,000 by Thursday night, and people pleaded for water, food and even toilet paper.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said a second American, identified only as a female English teacher, died in the quake. Two days ago, Voni Lynn Wong, 24, of Van Nuys was the first American victim identified. She too was an English teacher.

Separate official and unofficial reports indicated that at least 51 foreigners were killed.

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More than 30,000 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged, and broad areas today remained without water, gas or electricity.

In his questions to Murayama, Toshihiro Nikai, a member of the opposition New Frontier Party, said private economists had estimated the damage at between $40 billion and $80 billion.

Revelation of the record death toll spurred new criticism of the government after Murayama surveyed the scene from a military helicopter and then walked through a section of Kobe on Thursday. He described the ruins as “beyond imagination--far exceeding anyone’s expectations.”

He also declared that his government would be “forced” to enact a supplementary budget to finance relief efforts, and he urged a tightening of Japan’s already tough earthquake standards.

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“Our laws were enacted without imagining this kind of damage. We need to establish standards (for construction) that can withstand this kind of earthquake,” Murayama said.

Two women jeered him at one of many relief centers, calling his words of encouragement “meaningless.”

“He should actually do something,” one of the women commented in front of TV cameras.

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In Tokyo on Thursday, Nobuo Ishihara, deputy chief Cabinet secretary and Japan’s highest-ranking bureaucrat, admitted that the government had mismanaged rescue efforts.

“The Self Defense Force should have been dispatched more quickly. But they could not be sent without a request from the prefecture (state) government, and the prefecture was in chaos,” Ishihara said.

“I myself consider it very serious that it took so long for us to comprehend the extent of the damage,” said Ishihara, who is in charge of coordinating the national government’s bureaucracy for Murayama.

Five hours passed before troops were requested, and only 2,300 soldiers were sent to the quake area the first day. The Asahi reported that 13,500 troops and 30,000 police from other areas of Japan had been dispatched to the disaster area by today. Yet rescue efforts had not begun this morning in some residential sections of hard-hit Nishinomiya, Ashiya and Kobe, the paper said.

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On Thursday, before Murayama acknowledged “confusion” in government actions, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kozo Igarashi, Murayama’s principal political aide, called Ishihara’s criticism “invalid.”

“We are proud to have used our powers to the fullest, and the prime minister’s office has thoroughly pursued its responsibility,” said Igarashi, a Socialist associate of Murayama, the Socialist Party chairman who heads the tripartite coalition government.

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale, also defended Japan’s rescue effort.

“I defy anybody to look good with a tragedy like this, which is a major national disaster,” he said from Tokyo on the NBC “Today” program.

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Kabun Muto, appointed Thursday as chairman of the executive board of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main prop of Murayama’s coalition, sided with Ishihara. He declared that the government dispatched too few troops too slowly, and he urged revision of the law that requires local governments to request the troops.

In Kobe, a western port city of 1.5 million people through which a tenth of Japan’s trade passes, and in neighboring Nishinomiya, many evacuees complained to NHK Television interviewers that they are getting only two meals a day. Often, a meal consists of only a single rice ball, some said.

Asked what they need, people living on mattresses spread on the floor side-by-side with those of other families cited water, food, blankets and toilet paper.

“What I want is underwear,” said one man in his early 30s, who said he hadn’t been able to wash for three days.

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Local officials acknowledged that evacuees were not being supplied with necessities, despite an outpouring of donations heading toward the area from across the country. Even after the shipments arrive, they conceded, there are not enough trucks to deliver the relief goods nor enough officials to allocate them to the relief centers--many of which are unheated school gymnasiums.

City officials said deliveries of water were being made to only half the relief centers. Since the earthquake struck, overnight temperatures have hovered around 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

A railway station in Nishinomiya, about 12 miles from the center of Kobe, was the closest point to which public transportation was operating.

Hundreds of individuals were traveling from there to Osaka to obtain food and other essentials, hauling them in backpacks or wheeled suitcases and walking back to Kobe from Nishinomiya.

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Toshimichi Kaihara, governor of Hyogo prefecture, where Kobe is located, said on TV that his government had received assurances by Thursday night of a sufficient supply of water, food, portable toilets and portable heaters.

“What has been most lacking is information on where to go to obtain what goods, and when the goods will be made available,” the governor said.

He said he had secured 100 vehicles for official use beginning today to patrol the prefecture and dispense relief information.

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Evacuees--including those who lost their homes and others who left their dwellings because they had no electricity, water or gas--will be urged to leave the refugee centers and go to the homes of relatives or friends outside the disaster area, Kaihara said.

Procter & Gamble, whose Japan headquarters is on Rokko Island off Kobe, evacuated its employees as part of a group of 250 foreigners that left by boat Thursday.

Roads to the city remain damaged and clogged with traffic, and all train lines are out of operation.

“We’ve decided to establish operations in Osaka. That is now under way. We decided that our people here cannot be living and working in proper conditions. So we are moving them, where possible, to Osaka,” Denis F. Beausejour, vice president and general manager of the company’s health and beauty care division in Japan, told an NHK TV interviewer.

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“The earthquake itself was bad. But it was not knowing what to do afterward . . . that was the most difficult,” an unidentified foreign man in the evacuation group told NHK.

Adding to the difficulties in Kobe, four moderate aftershocks struck the region Thursday. Four major new fires broke out, after three days of blazes had finally ended. Firefighters’ inability to obtain water from broken mains was so severe that one fire station burned down.

At the national headquarters in Kobe of Japan’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, gangsters were reported handing out food and supplies. And singer Billy Joel, who is visiting Japan, announced that he would donate the proceeds of his concerts here to quake victims.

Twenty-four countries offered to send help to Japan.

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A Swiss rescue team with 12 search dogs trained to sniff out people buried in rubble arrived and went to work Thursday. The team is usually deployed in searches for people buried in avalanches in the Swiss Alps.

The United States offered any help Japan might want, but the government Thursday decided to accept only a gift of 37,000 military blankets. It turned down an offer from Defense Secretary William J. Perry to make “the entire resources of the Department of Defense available to Japan.”

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who happened to be in Tokyo, made the offer on Perry’s behalf Wednesday after President Clinton told Prime Minister Murayama that he would be willing to deploy any of the 47,000 American troops stationed here in quake rescue efforts.

Tuesday’s temblor was measured by Japanese scientists at a magnitude of 7.2.

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The equivalent American measure is 6.8, as rendered by specialists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. Other American experts reported it as a 6.9. All such measures are considered preliminary and subject to revision.

Tuesday’s quake killed more people than one in 1948 that took 3,895 lives in Fukui prefecture.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Transit Nightmare

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Tuesday’s quake devastated Kobe’s transportation system. Only supply and emergency vehicles were able to travel the main road between Osaka and Kobe. Among the damage:

Fault, 8 miles long and 4 miles deep, slipped 40 to 48 inches in sex seconds.

Extensive damage to man-made islands because of “liquefaction” of landfill; dock and warehouse district damage.

Source: Nihon Keizal Shimbun, Meteorological Agency, Teikoku-Shoin Atlas of Japan

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