White Peril and Far Outliers have notes about the decade-ago disaster. We were in Yamaguchi when it happened: woke me out of a sound sleep from 200 miles away. I immediately, of course, turned on the TV for the earthquake announcements, and didn’t go back to bed for a long time. Some memories and thoughts:
- There was, coincidentally, a blood donation drive scheduled on the campus of Yamaguchi University the next day. We’d given blood in Japan a time or two before that, I think (the cards are around somewhere: I rarely throw that stuff away). Anyway, I figured we’d go by the mobile station and, if the lines were too bad we’d just give up. No line. We got in, went from station to station (they actually weigh you, if they think you might be borderline) and got stuck and bled with little delay. I know there are Confucian and other traditional issues about blood donations, but given Japan’s bad history with imported blood products I really expected a stronger response.
- We also participated in a charity concert a month or so later. My wife is a fine musician, and is capable of coaching even a neophyte like me into producing some passable harmonica and harmony backup. It was an all-day production, with dozens of local acts. Woody did one of her own songs (“Miriam’s song” I think, a rousing prayer of praise to the universe), John Denver’s “Country Roads” (very popular among our Japanese friends, particularly with our “Almost heaven, Yamaguchi” modifications) and Stuart Stott’s “Music in my mother’s house” (fantastic nostalgia piece, well worthy of enka-ization). We did a joint piece with a local folksinger as well — I think it was John Lennon’s “Imagine” (I checked with Woody: she also sang Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, and the song we sang with the local guy was Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Before the concert, since she was the featured performer, I coached her on the proper offering of condolences… then I did a translation into English. You had to be there.). Not sure how much we contributed to the effort, but it certainly was a change from the school choruses and music clubs that filled most of the program.
- A few months later, the Jewish group in Iwakuni (mostly Americans associated with the Marine Air Station) raised some money among itself to bring relief goods to the Jewish community in Kobe. We got there on a Friday night in a rented van, and joined in for services and were treated to a fantastic Shabbat dinner by the locals. The Kobe Jewish community is mostly a remnant of WWII refugees, though there is a pretty strong Israeli component, too. The synagogue is Sephardic Orthodox (separate seating for women, the whole bit), and this Ashkenazi Liberal had some trouble keeping up. The building had suffered some structural strains, and a Ten Commandments tablet had been cracked. Otherwise they were doing pretty well. Wandering around Kobe was sobering: well outside the fire zone, there were frequent recently-cleared empty lots in the middle of busy city blocks, raw reminders. Though it could have been worse, of course, but for Japan’s strong seismic construction codes.
We haven’t been back to Japan since ’94, and I wasn’t terribly familiar with Kobe before that. I’d be very curious to hear from people with experience on both sides of the divide how the tragedy has affected people, institutions, architecture, geography.