Earthquake In Japan: Political after-shocks haunt bashful PM

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The Independent Online
Tomiichi Murayama, Japan's Socialist Prime Minister, made a brief descent into the nightmare of Kobe yesterday. Few people witnessed the visitation. Mr Murayama chose not to dawdle in the smouldering ruins of the country's fifth largest city and i t was easy to see why.

The political after-shocks from Tuesday's quake continue to reverberate in the blanket media coverage of the ghastly toll in human life - more than 4,000 and still counting - injury, homelessness, hunger, severe economic dislocation, and the apparently insuperable requirements of restoring normal life to the region. What probably deterred Mr Murayama from spending more time in Kobe, scene of a catastrophe no one had expected and no one had prepared for, is the craving for scapegoats.

The first candidates in a blame game, only just beginning, are the fault lines in long-established government policies which have encouraged the concentration of national population and wealth in areas of the greatest seismic danger. Second come the morepressing and disturbing questions of why emergency supplies of food, water, electricity, gas and oil, have been so delayed. Why - three days after the quake - is Japan's second largest port still in darkness? Why are its citizens shivering with cold, their stomachs aching for the daily hand-out of noodles or a rice ball wrapped in sea weed? Only the exhausted city officials, and the thousands of soldiers and riot police drafted in to help with relief, are assured the luxury of regular meals.

Worst for Mr Murayama must have been the prospect of stares from blank and listless faces of displaced adults and children who have lost not only their homes but the dignity and purpose of life beyond daily survival. Yesterday throughout Kobe you could see families crawling through ruins and cramming belongings on to bicycles or into cars and heading for any available refuge outside the stricken city. The hotels of Osaka, Japan's second biggest city, are booked solid with refugees from Kobe.

The Kobe Seaside Hospital, one of many in the city caring for the sick and wounded, has at least had its electricity restored, but since nearly all the hospital equipment, including X-ray and blood analyser machines, were badly damaged, it is of little use in treating the patients, many of whom sustained trauma and bone fractures from the earthquake. "We can only perform minor surgery. And please tell people we urgently need food and water," said Dr Shigeru Makino, adding that his "biggest problem" is not being able to bathe the patients, or to flush the toilets.

Dr Makino introduces Yuni Shimode, 59, who has a broken back and a six-inch wound to her forehead. She had come to Kobe from Tokyo "for sight-seeing" when the quake threw her from the hotel bed and a telephone stand crashed on to her head. A friend in the hotel placed her on the top of a desk, and dragged it outside, where a passing motorist took pity and took her to hospital. Dr Makino admits Mrs Shimode needs at the very least a cast for her broken back, but the hospital now lacks the resources, and she is at risk of permanent paralysis. Her bedsheets are stained with blood; the hospital no longer has a functioning laundry.

Huge tracts of Kobe have been reduced to smouldering embers from fires caused by capsized stoves or leaking gas pipes. I saw families sleeping in a park, still huddled in the morning around a makeshift bonfire. An old man, whose elderly neighbours in hisapartment block were killed by the quake, explained they were too afraid to stay inside anywhere after an after-shock struck early yesterday morning.

As he spoke billows of smoke rose from a fire in the rubble of Nagata-Ku, a working-class district now obliterated. Members of the "Ground Self Defence Force", the constitutionally sensitive description used for the army, were making a rare public appearance to help search for bodies. Suddenly two weeping young men, crying that they had spotted the corpse of a lost neighbour buried behind a fallen spar of timber, called the soldiers' attention to a narrow alley blocked by fallen vending machines. The soldiers brought picks, shovels, sledge-hammers and a stretcher, but were told a chainsaw would also be needed.

In Nagata-Ku a family photo and a miniature Japanese doll were lying on the street. Toys and children's books had spilled from a shattered and flattened house.

What makes assessing the eventual bill for reconstruction so impossible at the moment is that so much - perhaps at least half - of what is left standing will have to be torn down. And after the chemical works, furnaces, and docks return to operation, where will the people be housed?

On every street, on every block of the city, from poor man's ghetto to hilly residences for the professional classes, to the commercial and administrative heart of Kobe, there is either destruction or buildings dangerously poised to collapse. Some exhibit the effects of the "up and down" strength of the quake: their middle portions have caved in, or jagged buttresses stick out over pavements. In other buildings the ground floors appear to have sunk into the buckled pavement.

Yesterday two office buildings in Sannomiya collapsed across the street. As they watched bulldozers tear at their former head office, staff of a paper distribution company were holding a wake for the building beneath a tent on the pavement.

"After they are finished we will search for the safes, in which all our records are stored. Tomorrow we start work again. we still have a sales branch left in the city," one said optimistically.

Walking along any street in Kobe is a risky business. Returning along a road which has sunk six feet in the middle, I passed a collapsing white structure I had walked under just one hour before. A 10ft concrete slab had crashed on top of a bulldozer. Yetthe people of Kobe walked nonchalantly beside these dangerous structures.

On deserted roads, disciplined Japanese will wait until the pedestrian light shows green before crossing. Many in once proud, prosperous, and carefree Kobe seem similarly resigned to their fate. But, across Japan, the full political, economic and psychological reverberations of the quake are only beginning to be felt.

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