Kobe Quake's Social Aftershocks Fade : Japan: Temblor's impact on government policy and daily life is less than many hoped.


The mood here is returning to normal, reducing chances for changes that many hoped would be spurred by the terror and shock of January's killer earthquake.

Dr. Eiichi Sato, a professor on the Kobe University health sciences faculty, recently complained, for example, that "six months after a minister was named to take charge of earthquake measures, the post was abolished in a Cabinet change. Why did Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama name one in the first place?"

Right after the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that killed 5,501 people, injured 32,952 others and wreaked $102 billion in damage, Murayama's government "felt that it had to do whatever it could to deal with the horrible destruction," said Tadashi Nakano, an executive of Kamigumi Co., a leading stevedoring firm operating in Kobe's port.

"But over time," Nakano said, "that feeling cooled off. It changed dramatically after the [March 20] sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways. Now, the national government has become very severe--in all sorts of ways."

Harue Kitamura, Japan's only female mayor--who won reelection in June in quake-struck Ashiya, adjacent to Kobe--agreed. "Everyone is saying that the national government enthusiasm has cooled off," she said.

Worst of all, "the feeling of helping each other that existed right after the earthquake has turned back toward self-centeredness," Kitamura said.

On Aug. 20, the Kobe government declared it was closing refugee centers at schools and parks and urged the 7,000 homeless still living in them to move out--virtually "accusing the refugees of refusing to stand on their own feet," said Noriko Koyama, a former radio talk show commentator who won a seat in June in the Kobe city assembly election.

"In the first three or four months after the earthquake, no one could possibly have dared to have made such an accusation," she said. "But many came to feel that the people in the refugee camps were there to get free food and free rent so they could save money."

The rage precipitated by quake-related incidents also has noticeably subsided. Right after the temblor, the Hyogo Prefecture Women's Center was deluged with requests for advice on divorce from wives outraged by the way their husbands had acted as their homes were shaking or crumbling to the ground. "There were so many requests we hardly had time to eat," said Mariko Kawabata, a counselor at the center.

Although the quake only brought to the surface marital problems that already existed, actions by husbands in moments of crisis left memories that wives find hard to forget, she said.

"One husband failed to cry out the name of his child as the family home was shaking in the quake. . . . Another husband called out the name of the family's dog but not his wife's name. . . . Some husbands grabbed what was most important to them--things like their golf bag or their favorite fishing rod--and ran out of their houses without checking to see if their wives or children were safe. Wives were left with a terrible feeling of distrust and wondered just what they meant to such husbands," Kawabata added.

Nanae Hasegawa, another counselor at the center, blamed the incidents on the top priority that Japanese husbands give their jobs and the companies they work for--at the expense of relationships at home: "Many husbands walked four or five hours to work just a few days after the quake and stayed there to fulfill all of their company duties. Very few made any effort to help in rebuilding their home life. Husbands who came home after a week or 10 days found that a huge chasm had developed between them and their wives, who had struggled to piece together a daily life for the family."

Despite the explosive potential for marital collapses, city records show that the number of divorces in the first six months of the year decreased compared with the same period last year.

With the quake adding to unemployment, already rising throughout Japan because of four years of economic stagnation, wives without job prospects are swallowing their complaints, Kawabata said. "The amount of gaman [perseverance] has definitely increased," she added.

Even the anger that erupted against Murayama's government in January, when he delayed the dispatch of military troops to the post-quake rescue effort, is no longer mentioned. And a mini-rebellion, in which a smattering of grass-roots rebels won seats in city assemblies by promising to emphasize a better living environment instead of growth-first policies, has produced few results.

Koyama, the former radio commentator who was one of the rebels, said she thought the quake would make people "like me who love Kobe" want the city to be restored as a comfortable place to live. "But I was wrong." Twenty newcomers were elected to the Kobe assembly, "but only a few of them share my opinions," she said. "The growth faction is still the majority."

She noted that in her 30 years in talk radio, she found it easy to criticize the government. "But after becoming a member of the city assembly, I learned that the city's administrators were all victims of the earthquake who had gone around trying to help other victims without going home themselves. Suddenly, when you find yourself talking to a person who didn't go home for a month, it becomes impossible to say, 'What have you been doing?' "

Tadafumi Uragami was another rebel who took a leave of absence from a job--as a department store executive--to win a seat in the Kobe assembly. His rage was triggered, he said, when Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama renewed Kobe's bid for national government support to build an airport off the coast at a time when tens of thousands of residents still had no homes. Uragami said he thought Kobe lawmakers' 53-19 vote for the airport showed that "the mood in the assembly has changed since the earthquake." Before the quake, the assembly had supported the airport 71-1, he noted.

"We can't continue cutting down mountains and filling in the bay to develop the economy. From now on, we should emphasize the environment," Uragami said.

Although there was a post-temblor public clamor to make Kobe a model of earthquake safety, the political scene now is dominated by quarrels over street widening and realigned property boundaries.

Shozo Okamura--a carpenter who became the leader of a refugee tent city in a section of Ashiya in which 90% of the homes were destroyed--recalls that he won his assembly post by pledging to work for an urban reconstruction that matched residents' wishes. But he noted that he is beginning to feel that some of the residents are too obdurate.

Ashiya's plan for his neighborhood involves tripling the size of a park and widening roads from 16 feet to 26 feet. But residents feel that "a bigger park only means more lovers at night. Already, public morals have eroded. And wider roads? Residents fear that will attract hot-rodders," Okamura said. "Most residents want things left as they are. They don't want anyone to touch their lives."

Uragami and others said the Kobe quake made many residents in the disaster area, in his words, "aware that indulging in luxuries was meaningless."

"Kobe people also have become more prone to talk to each other," he added, "perhaps because a common topic has emerged."

Megumi Shimizu of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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