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The Kobe Earthquake

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Kobe after the earthquake of 1995.

Kobe1 is a large city near the south coast of Japan's main island. It is a popular city among tourists. It has a museum, several high-speed train stations, and an airport is being built at the time of writing. However, in 1995 a relatively small earthquake threatened to destroy all this.

The Earthquake

The Kobe Earthquake hit Japan early in the morning of 17 January, 1995. Although earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale are common in Japan, this one was different; the epicentre was just 20km south-west of the city, and it struck at just 5.46am when most people would still be in bed and some were cooking breakfast. It shocked the world that in a country so built-up and earthquake-ready, a minor earthquake2 could still take the lives of 3000 people3 and leave more than a third of the city's population homeless. Even ten years after the quake you could still see the remains of buildings waiting to be rebuilt.

Transport and Communication

Access to the sites of earthquakes is always likely to be restricted, because ground movements damage roads and railways; however, the Kobe earthquake did more than anyone expected. Seemingly earthquake-proof roadways failed to do their job and collapsed. Kobe is situated on a strip of flat land between high mountains and the sea. This rather narrow strip of land carries all the communications routes between north-eastern Japan and western Japan. Emergency aid for the city needed to use these routes, but many of them were destroyed during the earthquake. The famous high-speed railway link connecting Tokyo4 with western Japan was cut in half when the bridges in Kobe fell down. The only other two rail links were also cut during the quake.


As is the case in most cities, services such as water, gas, electricity and sewers were provided via a network of underground pipes and cables. When the ground began to move, the more rigid pipes weren't able to move well, so they fractured. Almost three-quarters of the water supply to the entire city was out of action, gas pipes leaked into the air, and sewers discharged their contents into the streets.


When the earthquake hit, fire broke out throughout the city. Remember that this earthquake struck early in the morning - those people who were not still in bed were just getting up and making breakfast. People were cooking meals at the very moment that their homes began to shake and collapse. Over 300 fires quickly started, especially among the remains of wooden buildings; these fires were caused by cookers, live electric wires and hot embers from fireplaces.

By the next day, teams of firefighters had arrived from all over Japan, but despite this there were at least a dozen major fires that burned for up to two whole days before they were brought under control. Research conducted at the Kobe University suggests that 500 deaths were due to fires, and that almost 7000 buildings were destroyed by fire alone. Fortunately, it rained soon after, otherwise the damage would have been even greater.

After the Earthquake

Following the earthquake Kobe City began a programme of restoration. There is now also a simulator at the Natural History Museum in London, allowing visitors to experience being in a shop at the time of the quake.

1Also written as Kobi.2Minor for Japan, anyway.3Although the death toll would have been higher if the trains had been running.4The Japanese capital.

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