April 10, 2011

JAPAN: Meet Yoshiko Negita, 79, first-hand storyteller of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake

TOKYO / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / Features / April 10, 2011

By Tomoko Otake, Staff Writer

AWAJI ISLAND, Hyogo Prefecture — At age 79, Yoshiko Negita's mind is alert and her memory is laser-sharp. There is, too, a sense of urgency in her voice as this resident of Awaji Island in the Seto Inland Sea speaks to visitors at its Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park. There, preserved at an experiential museum, is an exposed section of the Nojima fault, whose sudden, violent movement caused the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit the area in January 1995 and claimed more than 6,000 lives.

"Do you live in a wooden structure, or a concrete one?" Negita, wielding a pointing stick, asked a family with two school-age children last week as they entered a section of the museum that shows how to make homes quake-safe.

"Let's start from the entrance area. Is your shoe closet fixed to the wall? It'd better be."

At the ready: Awaji Island quake survivor Yoshiko Negita, with an emergency kit including a whistle, an LED flashlight and a mirror, dangling from her neck.

Negita, whose family are custodians of a Buddhist temple on this island of some 140,000 people, is one of the museum's 20 registered kataribe (firsthand storytellers) of the 1995 quake, which affected Kobe and other southern parts of Hyogo Prefecture, including Awaji Island. Negita herself was lucky to have been rescued by local firefighters after being trapped in the rubble of a shattered temple building for "3 hours and 50 minutes," she says.

"The 280-year-old main hall of the temple — where I was sleeping — was blown to pieces in 15 seconds," Negita recalled at the museum's Memorial House, a two-story concrete building that was formerly an islander's home that withstood the quake, but is now an exhibit demonstrating how well-built houses can survive even if they are sited only a few meters from a fault line.

"It was so quick that I didn't know what happened," Negita continued. "The temple building had more space between its wooden columns than regular houses, and I happened to be caught between ones that had collapsed.

"I heard the sirens blaring outside, and I heard firefighters say, 'All the people we have pulled out so far from the five houses on this block have been dead, so anyone here will be dead, too.' I raised my voice, but whatever I said couldn't be heard. And every time I tried to speak, I tasted chunks of dust in my mouth."

Now, ever since the March 11 Tohoku-Kanto quake and tsunami, Negita says she has been glued to the television, thus turning herself into a semi-expert on the nitty-gritty of the disaster.

"Despite the nearly 80 years I have lived, the Great Hanshin Earthquake has had the biggest impact on my view on life," she said. "I heard so many stories of people surviving or not surviving at the whim of fate," she said, noting that she, too, could easily have been burned to death.

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