Radio star's election reveals depth of Kobe quake anger

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The Independent Online


"If the quake had not taken place, I would still be chatting on the radio," says Noriko Koyama. The Kobe earthquake on 17 January changed many lives, but none in quite the way as 53-year-old Miss Koyama's.

Until this weekend she was known in the city simply as a broadcaster, after 30 years on the local station, Radio Kansai. On Sunday night she was elected as a member of the Kobe City Assembly, polling the second- highest number of votes in Higashi-Nada Ward, one of the areas worst hit by the quake. Miss Koyama is an independent, and she owes her election to an emotion seldom seen in Japanese domestic politics - anger.

Kobe is hardly a city in turmoil. In many ways, the speed and ease with which life has returned to normal is astonishing. But at least 25,000 people - five times more than the death-toll - are still living in public shelters. Unemployment is becoming a big problem, too. Last month, 32,000 people had registered unemployed as a direct result of the quake, and only 8 per cent of them had found new jobs.

"As I listened to the voters' complaints during the campaign, I felt their anger become stronger and stronger," says Miss Koyama. In the weeks after the disaster she quickly made a name for herself as a critic of the city authorities. In the first 48 hours after the earthquake, co-ordination of relief efforts was minimal. Nearly five months later, the suspicion is growing that, while the institutions damaged by the quake are being smartly put back in order, the human victims are a lower priority.

Japan's wealth and stable social cohesion have made the homelessness problem far less serious than it might be. But the areas worst hit by the quake were poor neighbourhoods of old wooden buildings. Many of the people in the shelters are elderly or isolated people, without extended families to turn to, without money to buy new houses, and without a political voice. Kobe's elections were delayed two months because of the disaster but turn-out was only 45 per cent, the lowest on record.

Despite Miss Koyama's victory, the homeless of Kobe are far from being galvanised into political action. "The city hasn't helped me so far, but there will be no difference if we have new representatives," one old man told Asahi newspaper.