Disability, Destitution, and Disaster: Surviving the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Japan
Nakamura, Karen, Human Organization
On the morning of January 17, 1995, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the port city of Kobe, Japan. 6,400 people died and over $80 billion in property damage occurred. Among those rendered homeless was a small group of people with severe disabilities. Over the next decade, this group leveraged discourses surrounding civil society, disability, poverty, and the role of government in natural disasters, to become one of the most powerful and vocal proponents of disability rights in Japan. What lessons can we learn to make disability advocacy a leading, rather than trailing, element of social policy?
Key words: advocacy, disability, civil society, social welfare, government
A tremendous natural disaster strikes a major metropolitan area. Thousands are thought to have immediately perished and hundreds of thousands are rendered homeless. The local government is overwhelmed as provision of basic services such as medical care, electricity, telephone, water, and food supplies are all disrupted. The elderly, disabled, and poor are hit the worst. The national government dallies for days while people are dying in the streets and the eventual response is too little, too late. Citizens all across the country are enraged at this state of affairs and demand change.
This was not New Orleans 2005. This was Kobe City, Japan in 1995.
In the early morning hours of January 17, 1995, a Richter magnitude 7.3 major earthquake struck 16 km below the surface in the Hanshin- Awaj i area near the port city of Kobe, located west of Osaka, Japan. Although many Japanese had thought that their country had some of the highest earthquake resistant construction standards in the world, these beliefs were shattered when the earthquake hit. Simply put, this major metropolitan region of 3.5 million residents was devastated. Overhead highway trusses split in two, the Shinkansen Super Express train derailed, ferroconcrete buildings were pitched onto their sides, and wooden residential homes burned for days. This was not supposed to happen.
Over 6,400 people died, over a million were rendered homeless, and over $80 billion in property damage occurred. People across Japan were horrified at a scale of destruction that had not been seen since the Pacific War and were enraged at the national government's subsequent mishandling of the rescue and recovery effort. National self-defense forces were not sent in for several days, as local and national bureaucrats clashed over jurisdiction and accusations of political scheming. In one famous incident, specially trained survivor rescue dogs and their human teams from Switzerland were held back at Narita airport for several days over quarantine requirements, thus rendered useless (Grubel 2000: 121).
Just as with New Orleans 2005, Japanese citizens in the 1995 Kobe earthquake were outraged that news media were able to get helicopters in for live coverage of the ongoing tragedy while the national government was seemingly still in denial. The result of the bungling of the rescue effort was a massive outpouring of financial and physical assistance by the citizens of Japan and the creation of a new era of active civil society in Japan. Three years later, the government passed the first NonProfit Organization Law (NPO Law of 1998), allowing small non-profit organizations to incorporate for the first time.
Located near the epicenter of the earthquake in the suburb of Nishinomiya was a small organization of people with severe physical disabilities called the Mainstream Association. Their office building was destroyed and most of the members were rendered homeless. Ten years after the earthquake, Mainstream Association had become one of the strongest and most militant organizations of people with physical disabilities in Japan. This paper discusses the ways that Mainstream leveraged discourses surrounding civil society, disability, poverty, private and public giving, and the government's role in natural disasters. …