Ben Hills

Kobe, Thursday: In the gloom of a shuttered schoolroom, the sickly smell of incense fills the air as Akihiro Harada kneels on his heels beside a still form wrapped in a fluffy floral blanket.

Inside is his sister Keiko, three days dead, but as yet unburied. “There are no coffins left. Even if there were, we could not get her to the crematorium. And even if we could there is no gas to cremate her. We have nothing.” On the floors and tables of this makeshift morgue, 28 bodies lie shrouded in blankets. Some have their names in hand-painted characters on pieces of paper laid on their bosoms, others are unidentified. A single yellow chrysanthemum, the Japanese funeral flower, sits in a sake jar. Someone has placed a pile of rice-balls, traditional Buddhist offerings to the souls of the newly dead, beside another. I walked here 10 kilometres, to the Nishinomiya district primary school, through the ruins of what was once Japan’s sixth most important city, a place of ancient Shinto shrines and temples whose name, literally, means the Doorway of the Gods.

Today it is the gateway to hell. The clocks on the walls of the shops and buildings are frozen in time, their hands stopped at 5.46, the moment when, on Tuesday morning, two tectonic plates collided with the force of a hundred atom bombs 30 kilometres beneath the sleeping city.

In a toll that is rising inexorably, at least 3,729 people have died, 21,636 have been injured and 652 are still missing. Black oily smoke hangs in the air from fires still defying the army of helmeted troops and firefighters airlifted in from all over Japan in a belated attempt to try to cope with the disaster.

I am carried along by a ceaseless column of human traffic. The roads are ruptured, rubble-covered, cordoned off by tough-looking kidotei, Japan’s elite riot police. A man driving a white van labelled “urgent medical supplies” is stuck in a jam, growling that it has taken him three hours to cover the 50 kilometres from Osaka.

In the country that put the world on cheap wheels, transport is now reduced to the most primal form. It is like the exodus of refugees from a war, except these are the best-dressed refugees you ever saw – and they are angry at their Government. Young women in Italian fashions trundle their possessions along in designer suitcases with little wheels; the men are in suits and ties, with a few dressed in a cashmere top-coats against the cloudy winter chill. One carries three carbon-fibre tennis rackets, another a bag of state-of-the-art golf clubs.

The Nishinomiya primary school is one of about 1,000 public buildings which have been commandeered. There are thought to be 250,000 people without a roof over their heads.

Like many of the dead of Kobe, Seiko was crushed to death as she lay in bed – her husband and two children were lucky to escape as their wooden house was thrown a metre in the air. Her brother, a 47-year-old computer systems specialist, now keeps vigil beside her body, waiting for the gas to be reconnected to the crematorium.

In the school gymnasium, some 800 of the living hunkered down on the floor of the basketball court last night for the third night in a row. “We don’t know how long we will be here – two months? three months?,” says Mr Li Young Fan, 49, who is sitting on a blanket, with his wife and four children.

Mr Li has lost everything in the wreckage of his house, and has been surviving on rice-ball rations in this freezing hall, but he insists on placing a can of orange-drink in front of me.

As we talk, a massive jolt like a pile-driver pounding the floor shakes the hall. There is absolute silence, apart from a dog yelping in fright – not a scream, not a word until the aftershock is over. They are used to this now. There have been nearly 100 jolts like this since the Big One flattened Kobe. I pick myself up from the floor, dusty and embarrassed.

“I lived in Hokkaido and Niigata and Okinawa before I chose Kobe,” says Mr Li, “I came here because there was no snow and it never had earthquakes. I have had a good laugh about that.” Outside in the school playground, a cardboard city has sprung up for those for whom there is no room – or who are too scared – to move inside.

“Look at this,” says Haruko Murata, 66, thrusting a cellophane-wrapped swiss roll at me, “This is all they have given us to eat.” Yoshiro Mizue, a 52-year-old electrician, stands shiny-eyed, surveying what looks like a poorly-managed rubbish tip – the ruin of the boarding house that used to be his home. Eighty single men once lived here – four or five lie buried in the wreckage.

Jitsue Sakashita, 84, sits on an office chair with a towel over her head, warming her hands at a tiny brazier. Across the road, her blue-tiled timber house tilts at a crazy angle – how they managed to drag her out she doesn’t know.

“I lay there in the darkness and I prayed to the Lord Buddha for four hours, five hours … I can’t remember. Now I have done that, I can die in peace.” On a radio at her feet, a broadcaster solemnly intones the names of the dead.

And yet, in the midst of this universal human disaster, there are some things that make it uniquely Japanese – at a crossroads, people carrying all their belongings in sports bags, wait obediently for the traffic-light to signal “walk” before stepping off through shattered glass and bricks, across deep fissures clawed through the bitumen.

At the Watanabe Hospital, the waiting-room looks like a scene from MASH, with patients and relatives jamming the reception area. Some are caked with blood, and have been carried here on planks from busted buildings. A man in a wheelchair is paralysed. In the emergency room, 40 or 50 patients lie on the floor, some with drips attached.

“I have no idea how many patients we have seen,” says Dr Toshiki Hongo, an internal medicine specialist. “We have 200 inpatients – every bed is filled – and we cannot cope.” Dr Hongo says the hospital has no water, many drugs have run out, the x-ray machine is broken, and the operating theatre is out of action. “We can do nothing except basic treatment. We have had to watch as 100 patients die here.” And even death offers little but a bier of blankets in a room, and an indefinite wait for the gas to be reconnected.

Publishing Info

Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 902
Herald Correspondent
Photography: Reuter
1. An old woman walks in a daze through the burnt-out ruins of Kobe. Nearly 250,000 people are sleeping in refuge centres after the earthquake.
2. Dismayed engineers soul-search in the ruins.