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The Long After: Disaster and Information Politics in Post-Quake Kobe, Japan

  • Author(s): Takaki Richardson, Carla Ann
  • Advisor(s): Caldwell, Melissa L
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates the practices and politics of disaster information in Kobe, Japan in the years following the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Kobe was the site of Japan's worst urban disaster since World War II; the earthquake catalyzed nationwide changes to Japanese disaster preparedness and also became symbolic of the social, economic, and technological failures that plagued the "lost decade" of 1990s Japan. This study draws upon 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in multiple fieldsites: formal and informal associations including a community radio station, a citizen-led emergency preparedness club, disaster research collaborations among scholars and citizens, and finally, the city of Kobe itself. Through ethnographic data from participant observation, media analyses, and interviews, I show how earthquake survivors, researchers, and activists characterized the disaster as a catastrophe of knowledge. Such a portrayal describes a lack of information - from residents' unawareness of Kobe as an active fault zone to victims' frustrations about locating loved ones, shelter, and food - as a primary reason for why the earthquake was not just a natural disaster, but also a human-made catastrophe. Problematizing the disaster as a failure of knowledge has resulted in the continual production of disaster preparedness information in Kobe. The abundance of disaster information in Kobe illustrates the desire of disaster prevention researchers and activists to educate Kobe residents. At the same time, however, such information has become so ubiquitous that it risks becoming hidden in plain sight. This dissertation thus shows some of the strategies by which disaster prevention workers try to convince residents to become involved in securing their own safety. Further, these narratives of earthquake safety emphasize the importance of associational ties, as neighbors and community groups may prove to be lifesaving relationships during times of emergency. I argue that disaster prevention workers' focus on practices of neighborly intimacy and care are also keyed to broader social transformations of the 1990s, during which popular discourses anxiously affirmed the erosion of national values of connection and community. Finally, I suggest that disaster prevention workers use the Hanshin Earthquake as a way of creating a continuous history that recuperates both the failures of the earthquake and the perceived failures of contemporary Japanese society.

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