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The 1995 Kobe Earthquake: Why It Was a Catastrophe

Earthquakes are some of the most devastating natural disasters to be experienced in the world. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, also known as the Hanshin earthquake, led to the loss of lives, destruction of property, and injuries in the city of Kobe, Japan, on January 17, 1995. Researchers say that the earthquake had a massive magnitude of about 6.9 on the Richter scale, leading to the enormous destruction witnessed, leaving a long-lasting impact on the city’s residents and their families. Despite the devastating consequences, the disaster brought out the best in the human spirit, as the people of Kobe came together in the face of adversity to rebuild and recover. Today, Kobe serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit in the face of tragedy and a reminder of the importance of preparedness for natural disasters. All in all, as per the level of loss and destruction witnessed, the incident was a Catastrophe without any reasonable doubts.

Triggers and Events leading to, during, and following the impact of the natural disaster: A clear picture about the natural disaster.

Triggers/how the natural disaster occurred: The primary trigger of the earthquake is said to have been the thrust fault in the earth’s crust emanating from the movement of the Philippine Sea plate underneath the Eurasian plate, causing one plate to move upward and override the other.

Leading up to the disaster: A primary factor that led to the tragedy was that Kobe is located in a region prone to earthquakes. Several small earthquakes had occurred in the area months before the main event. However, these earthquakes did not cause significant damage, so residents and local authorities were not fully prepared for a more substantial quake.

During the disaster: The earthquake lasted approximately 20 seconds, having struck at 5:46 am on January 17, 1995. It was centered on Awaji Island and caused significant damage to the city of Kobe. The shaking caused fires in several areas, and many buildings and structures got destroyed. The damage was particularly severe in older, poorly constructed buildings.

Following the disaster: The earthquake’s aftermath was chaotic, as the damage to transportation networks, gas, and water supplies, and communication systems hampered rescue efforts. The Japanese government mobilized the Self-Defense Forces, and thousands of rescue workers, including firefighters and police, were sent to the affected areas to assist in search and rescue operations. Over the next few days, the death toll rose as more bodies got recovered from the rubble. The earthquake also caused a significant economic impact, as many businesses and factories in the Kobe area were destroyed or damaged. Consequently, in the months and years that followed, The Japanese government launched a comprehensive rebuilding program, which included building new homes, schools, and hospitals and repairing damaged infrastructure (Himoto, 937). The Kobe earthquake also had a lasting effect on Japan’s disaster preparedness perspective, resulting in updates to the building codes and emergency response planning.

Reasons Why the Incident Was a Catastrophe

Several reasons help define better why the incident was a catastrophe. For instance, some factors that made the event a disaster include the Strong Magnitude, Poor Building Construction, Dense Population, Timing, Lack of Preparation, Disruption of Infrastructure, High Death Toll, and overall Economic Impacts.

  1. The substantial magnitude of the earthquake: The strong magnitude of the 1995 Kobe earthquake was one of the significant reasons it was a catastrophe. A magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale is considered a strong earthquake and is capable of causing considerable damage to buildings and infrastructure. The ground motion during an earthquake of 6.9 can be violent and cause buildings to collapse, roads to buckle, and bridges to collapse. The magnitude of the Kobe earthquake caused widespread damage in the city, which contributed to the high death toll and the difficulty of rescue and recovery operations. The substantial magnitude also increased the risk of aftershocks, which can further complicate relief efforts and hinder recovery.
  2. Poor Building Construction: Many of the buildings in Kobe were old and not constructed to current standards for seismic safety. They lacked proper reinforcement and were made of materials that were not able to withstand the intense shaking caused by the earthquake. As a result, these buildings were more vulnerable to collapse and damage, which increased the casualties and the destruction caused by the disaster. In addition, the lack of adequate building codes and regulations in the area also contributed to the poor construction of buildings. This lack of rules allowed for buildings not designed to withstand earthquakes, making the city more susceptible to damage and destruction during the disaster. The Kobe earthquake served as a wake-up call for the need to enforce building codes and regulations in earthquake-prone areas to ensure the safety of residents and buildings during earthquakes.
  3. Dense population: Kobe is a heavily populated city with a high number of buildings and a large concentration of people. This density of population and buildings allowed the damage caused by the earthquake to become more widespread and affected many people. When an earthquake occurs in a densely populated area, the damage is more extensive, and the number of casualties is higher. This is because the shaking and damage from the earthquake can impact many buildings and people, making it more difficult to rescue those trapped and provide aid to those injured (Lu, 83). Additionally, the population density in Kobe also made it more difficult for rescue workers and emergency responders to access the affected areas and provide assistance, which added to the challenges of the disaster response and recovery efforts.
  4. Timing: The earthquake struck at 5:46 am on January 17, 1995, when many people were at home and vulnerable to the effects of the shaking. This meant that many people were in their homes and unprepared for the sudden and violent shaking that occurred. During the early morning hours, people are often in a deep sleep and are less likely to react quickly to the vibrations, which can increase their vulnerability to injury or death. Additionally, the timing of the earthquake meant that there was limited traffic on the roads, which made it easier for rescue workers and emergency responders to access the affected areas. However, it also meant that fewer people were available to assist with rescue efforts, which added to the challenges of the disaster response.
  5. Lack of preparedness: Despite Japan’s location in an area prone to earthquakes, Kobe City was not adequately prepared for the potential impact of a large earthquake. There were deficiencies in the emergency response plans, including the lack of resources, training, and infrastructure needed to respond to the disaster effectively. Additionally, many of the buildings in Kobe were not built to withstand earthquakes, and there was a lack of investment in seismic safety measures. This made the city more vulnerable to damage and increased the number of casualties. The lack of preparation also meant that there were limited resources available for rescue and recovery operations, making it more difficult for the authorities to respond to the disaster and provide assistance to those affected.
  6. Disruption of infrastructure: The earthquake caused significant damage to transportation networks, gas and water supplies, and communication systems, which made it more difficult for rescue workers and emergency responders to access the affected areas and provide assistance. The destruction of roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure made it difficult for people to evacuate the affected areas and access emergency medical care (Chang, 57). Additionally, the damage to gas and water supplies disrupted essential services, such as cooking and sanitation, which added to the challenges of the disaster response. The disruption of communication systems, including telephone and power lines, made it difficult for people to contact their loved ones and for the authorities to coordinate the disaster response. This added to the chaos and confusion following the earthquake, making it more difficult for the authorities to provide effective assistance to those affected.
  7. High Death Tolls: The earthquake resulted in over 6,000 deaths, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in Japan’s history. The high death toll was due to several factors, including the strength of the earthquake, the poor construction of many of the buildings in the affected area, and the timing of the disaster. The buildings in Kobe were not built to withstand earthquakes, and many collapsed during the shaking, causing significant loss of life (Okuyama, 27). Additionally, the earthquake occurred in the early morning hours, when many people were at home and vulnerable to the effects of the shaking. This meant that many people were inside buildings when the earthquake struck, increasing their chances of being trapped or killed by falling debris. The high death toll profoundly impacted the affected communities, as many families lost loved ones, and entire neighborhoods were devastated. The loss of life also added to the challenges of the disaster response, as rescue workers and emergency responders had to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, including the search and recovery of bodies and the identification of the dead.

Negative Economic impacts: The earthquake caused widespread damage to businesses and factories in the Kobe area, significantly impacting the local economy. Many companies were destroyed or damaged and had to be closed for repairs or rebuilding, resulting in many workers losing jobs and income. The damage to infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and transportation networks, made it more difficult for businesses to operate and for people to access goods and services. This added to the economic costs of the disaster, as the disruption of transportation and other essential services led to increased costs and reduced productivity (Aldrich, 600). Additionally, the earthquake significantly impacted the broader Japanese economy, as the Kobe area was a major industrial and commercial center, and the disaster disrupted the supply chains and production processes of many companies and industries across the country.

Comparison to another Natural Disaster: With Relevance and Drawn Influences.

A natural disaster that was similar in many ways to the 1995 Kobe earthquake was the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Both tragedies were significant earthquakes that resulted in a high death toll, widespread damage, and substantial economic impacts. In Haiti, the quake had a magnitude of 7.0, which was almost similar in strength to the Kobe earthquake. The earthquake caused widespread damage in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, including the collapse of many buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. The death toll was also high, with an estimated 200,000 to 316,000 people killed and much more injured (Ostřihanský, 77).

Like in Kobe, the poor construction of buildings in Haiti was a significant factor in the high death toll and widespread damage caused by the earthquake. Many of the buildings in Haiti were not built to withstand earthquakes, and the lack of building codes and regulations meant that many structures were not up to standards. The timing of the earthquake was also significant, as it occurred in the middle of the day when many people were at work or school. This led to a large number of people being trapped in buildings or caught in the rubble, which increased the death toll and the severity of the disaster. The economic impacts of the Haiti earthquake were also significant, with estimates suggesting that the disaster caused billions of dollars in damage and lost economic output. The destruction of businesses, homes, and other infrastructure disrupted the economy and led to a decline in economic activity in the aftermath of the disaster. Consequently, similar to the Kobe earthquake, the Haiti earthquake also highlighted the importance of disaster preparedness and the need for better building codes and infrastructure to withstand natural disasters. In both cases, the lack of preparation and inadequate infrastructure contributed to the severity of the disaster and the high death toll and economic impacts.

By comparing the Kobe earthquake to the Haiti earthquake, we can see the relevance and similarities between these two disasters and draw inferences about the importance of investing in disaster preparedness and infrastructure to minimize the impacts of natural disasters. This can help inform future planning and investment in disaster risk reduction and management to prevent similar disasters and reduce the costs and effects of future earthquakes and other natural disasters.

The current state of knowledge about the hazard

In the aftermath of the disaster, a significant amount of research was conducted to understand the causes and impacts of earthquakes better. Seismologists used seismographs and other instruments to study the earthquake’s origin, magnitude, and intensity and the distribution of aftershocks. Building engineers and architects evaluated the performance of buildings and infrastructure during the quake. They looked for ways to improve building design and construction to reduce damage and collapse during future earthquakes (Nguyen et al., 315). Researchers also conducted evaluations of transportation and communication networks, as well as emergency response efforts, to assess their effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.

These studies helped increase our understanding of earthquakes and their impacts and led to the development of improved building codes and disaster response strategies in Japan and other countries. The lessons learned from the Kobe earthquake continue to inform worldwide earthquake preparedness and response efforts. Despite the significant progress that has been made in the field of earthquake science, earthquakes remain one of the most unpredictable natural hazards. They can have devastating consequences, particularly in areas with high population densities and inadequate building codes (Lee and Gyeong-do, 408). As such, communities must be prepared for earthquakes through comprehensive disaster management plans, regular building inspections, and public education and awareness.

Lessons Learned From This Event

The disaster provided a wealth of valuable lessons for disaster preparedness and response that have been widely adopted worldwide. These lessons highlight the importance of strong building codes to ensure the resilience of buildings during seismic activity, the need for well-coordinated disaster response plans that involve multiple agencies, and the crucial role of public education and awareness in preparing communities for earthquakes. The earthquake also underscored the vulnerability of transportation and communication networks and the importance of having robust infrastructure that can maintain essential services during and after a disaster (Oliva and Luciana, 69). Finally, the Kobe earthquake emphasized the importance of comprehensive community planning to ensure that disaster response efforts are effective and well-coordinated. By incorporating these lessons, communities, and governments are better prepared to mitigate the risks and impacts of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Mitigation Strategies Laid Out after the Incident by the Japanese Government

The Japanese government took several necessary steps to mitigate the risks and impacts of earthquakes following the Kobe earthquake. These steps included updating building codes to require stronger, more seismic-resistant construction techniques, improving emergency response plans to ensure better coordination between different agencies, launching public education campaigns to raise awareness about earthquakes and how to prepare for them, upgrading transportation and communication networks to improve their resilience, and strengthening community planning efforts to ensure that disaster response efforts are better coordinated and more effective (Mavrodieva et al., 335). These mitigation strategies have helped reduce the risks and impacts of earthquakes in Japan and have served as a model for earthquake preparedness and response efforts worldwide.


In conclusion, the Kobe earthquake of 1995 was a catastrophic event that had lasting effects on the region and beyond. The quake was caused by complex geological and tectonic triggers. Its devastating impact was compounded by the densely populated and urbanized nature of the affected area, among other highlighted factors. These factors were among the reasons why the disaster is regarded as a catastrophe, as has been denoted. The earthquake is a powerful reminder of the importance of disaster preparedness and effective response. The lessons learned from this event have been widely adopted, reducing global risks and impacts from earthquakes, including in Japan. The mitigation strategies implemented by the Japanese government in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake serve as a valuable model for other communities and governments in their efforts to prepare for and respond to future natural disasters. The ongoing study and understanding of the hazard continue to play a crucial role in minimizing the impact of future earthquakes.

Works Cited

Aldrich, Daniel P. “The power of people: social capital’s role in recovery from the 1995 Kobe earthquake.” Natural hazards 56 (2011): 595-611.

Chang, Stephanie E. “Disasters and transport systems: loss, recovery, and competition at the Port of Kobe after the 1995 earthquake.” Journal of transport geography 8.1 (2000): 53-65.

Himoto, Keisuke. “Comparative analysis of post-earthquake fires in Japan from 1995 to 2017.” Fire Technology 55.3 (2019): 935-961.

Lee, Jin-sun, and Gyeong-do Noh. “Evaluation of caisson quay wall behavior during the 1995 kobe earthquake by nonlinear effective stress analysis.” Journal of the Earthquake Engineering Society of Korea 20.6 (2016): 401-412.

Lu, Chih-Chieh, and Jin-Hung Hwang. “Nonlinear collapse simulation of Daikai Subway in the 1995 Kobe earthquake: Necessity of dynamic analysis for a shallow tunnel.” Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology 87 (2019): 78-90.

Mavrodieva, Aleksandrina V., et al. “Role of civil society in sustainable urban renewal (Machizukuri) after the Kobe Earthquake.” Sustainability 11.2 (2019): 335.

Nguyen, Van-Quang, et al. “Numerical simulation of damage evolution of Daikai station during the 1995 Kobe earthquake.” Engineering Structures 206 (2020): 110180.

Okuyama, Yasuhide. “Long-run effect of a disaster: a case study on the Kobe earthquake.” The Singapore Economic Review 61.01 (2016): 1640009.

Oliva, Stefania, and Luciana Lazzeretti. “Adaptation, adaptability, and resilience: the recovery of Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.” European Planning Studies 25.1 (2017): 67-87.

Ostřihanský, Lubor. “Precursors of Haiti earthquakes.” Submitted on (2021).


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