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Japan marks 10th anniversary of Kobe quake

/ Source: The Associated Press

With candles and prayers, songs and moments of silence, Japan on Monday mournfully marked the 10th anniversary of the earthquake that ripped through the port city of Kobe, killing nearly 6,500 people and demonstrating the vulnerability of modern metropolises to natural disasters.

A plethora of commemorations testified to the depth of the 1995 tragedy: Hundreds of tearful survivors held a candlelight vigil at the time of the pre-dawn quake at 5:46 a.m., illuminating the form of the date, 1.17; students sang memorial songs about the catastrophe; rafts of dignitaries, including Emperor Akihito, filed into ceremonies organized by local authorities.

“It was terrifying,” said Taiko Yamana, 68, recalling the day the 7.3-magnitude quake violently shook her house, killing her 90-year-old mother. “I come here every year on this day. I wonder if this one will be the last.”

The Asian tsunami disaster loomed large over the landmark anniversary Monday. Many people in Kobe said seeing the damage on television brought back harsh memories of their own tragedy; others saw the common links between all victims of natural disasters. Some were moved to action, collecting relief donations at memorials to the Kobe victims.

For others, the tsunami disaster demonstrated how much worse the quake could have been.

“When I saw the tsunami on television, I thought, ‘Thank goodness there wasn’t anything like that in Kobe,”’ said Yamana.

Still, the human and material tolls of the quake were astounding: 6,433 were killed in a city that many thought was in an area largely immune to earthquakes, and 43,792 were injured. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were damaged, and the overall cost totaled some $96 billion.

The commemorations have been an occasion for the city to take stock of its impressive recovery. The city has been nearly completely rebuilt: Trains now buzz over rails that were once gnarled by the quake; downtown now shines with shopping centers and office buildings. Fire-savaged neighborhoods are full of newly built homes.

But emotional and economic scars remain just below the surface. Many still require counseling to grapple with the shock of the disaster, and polls show many residents feel their lives have not fully recovered from the quake. Livelihoods were lost forever.

“The city has just been rebuilt on the outside, but inside things are different,” said Mamoru Maekawa, 67, a taxi-driver who survived the quake without injury. “My income is half of what it was before the quake. There’s nobody here any more — just old people.”

The 10th anniversary was also a time to examine Japan’s disaster preparedness. The government was heavily criticized in 1995 for its confused and delayed reaction to the quake, and the country has greatly strengthened its emergency management systems. The quake triggered reviews of building codes and damage prevention.

Still, the threat of another disaster in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone nations is always present. Government forecasts show a major temblor under Tokyo — the center of the globe’s second-largest economy — could kill more than 12,000 people and destroy 850,000 homes. The Asahi newspaper pointed out in an editorial Monday that that there was a 70 percent chance a magnitude-7 quake would hit the capital region within the next 30 years.

“Some progress has been made in 10 years, drawing lessons from the situation at the time,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters Monday. “I think we have to further strengthen measures to minimize damage caused by unforeseeable situations and prevent disasters.”