Edgington, David W. 2010. Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity. University of British Columbia Press.
… we may not know fully if Kobe has provided Tokyo, or any other Japanese city, with the opportunity to prepare itself for a crisis that will invariably come. That will not be able to be recognized until the next earthquake strikes and that crisis is assessed.
This paragraph ends David W. Edgington’s extensively researched and detailed monograph on ten years of recovery planning and reconstruction in Kobe, Japan, following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Now, three months after March 11, we might begin to answer his question of what lessons Japan has learned from Kobe about disaster recovery. Judging from Edgington’s research, it might take another decade or more before these efforts can be fully assessed.
Edgington, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, traces the major contours of political, economic, social and material change in Kobe from the fateful morning of January 17, 1995 through 2005. Edgington provides a straightforward narrative account, thick with empirical and quantitative data, with relatively little discussion of theory. The book is chock-full of figures, tables and photographs, providing plenty of material for analysis and discussion for a diverse spectrum of readers, both graduate and undergraduate. Scholars who have studied the recovery planning process(es) of other disaster-struck cities, such as post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as those who have examined the aftermath of historical disasters in East Asia, will find many intriguing points of comparison and departure. It may also help readers understand and contextualize recovery efforts underway in eastern Japan now.
Inspired by a reading of the Japanese word for crisis, 危機 (kiki), as meaning “dangerous opportunity,” Edgington portrays the landscape of post-disaster Kobe as a patchwork of “geographies of crisis” and “geographies of opportunity.” This ties the notion of a “crisis / opportunity” dualism to a spatial dimension which is always present in his account, even as he foregrounds the explanatory force of demographic, legal and policy factors, funding regimes, and the pressures of limited timeframes. Four categories help frame the author’s discussion of the disaster and the city’s recovery: “the pre-existing situation,” “specific characteristics of the disaster itself,” “efforts by governments and NGO’s to facilitate recovery,” and “local community attitudes and relationship with governments.”
Chapters four, five and six provide the most interesting food for thought for students interested in the study of post-disaster recovery. These chapters describe the different tensions between actors and institutions involved in the years following the Kobe earthquake, especially after the city publicly released its recovery plan within two months of the earthquake in order to secure central government funding, while many victims were still in shelters or scattered across Japan, mourning the loss of over 6,400 people. These plans, as Edgington describes, were met by an angry crowd that besieged city hall for some five hours, haranguing officials for taking advantage of them without their input, as one resident said later, “like a thief at the scene of a fire (火事場泥棒, kajiba dorobo).” The city immediately made an about-face and instituted plans for massive public engagement in recovery planning and redevelopment.
Kobe’s plans for reconstruction had involved the identification of eight high-priority areas that would receive significant support from all levels of government, identified as “black zones” on the map. These areas were not chosen for the severity of damage alone, but for other reasons as well, such as specific features that the city thought could be exploited to enhance economic redevelopment. Edgington’s study points out some of the imbalances between the governmental support distributed to the so-called “black zones,” which constituted only three percent of the city’s area, compared to the majority “white zones” — some of which had experienced greater damage — or intermediate, “gray,” zones.
Students of urban history will find this study informative, given how Kobe’s experience helped lead to a remarkable surge in the popularity of machi-zukuri (community-building) organizations in Kobe and across Japan from the late 1990s to the present-day. Kobe had already had a history of pioneering these neighborhood planning associations, in which local residents work with the city planning department to develop their area jointly. Edgington demonstrates in three case studies that this strategy of overlaying traditional urban planning — toshikeikaku (都市計画) — upon machi-zukuri-based local planning on a city-wide scale was an entirely new experiment and had very uneven results. Like many of the experiences of other disaster-struck cities, the author’s analysis of Kobe shows that in the rush to catch the wind of opportunity presented by the destruction and reconstruction funding, the ship of recovery must still navigate the shoals of new and pre-existing social entanglements, obdurate economic and political realities, the very detritus of destruction, and the stubborn fact that the slate has not, in fact, been wiped clean.
Although Reconstructing Kobe is ambitiously broad in scope, no single tome could reasonably attempt to cover recovery planning and reconstruction in Kobe comprehensively. The best studies generate questions for further investigation, and Edgington does that here. As he notes, his case studies cover “black zones” only, and he points out that “white zones,” which were left to their own devices with little or no government support, actually recovered more quickly than the black zones. His research suggests that rigidly constraining legislation and contentious negotiations between the government and the local people contributed to the slow recovery of black zones. However, one would like to see equivalent research done on case studies within “white” and “gray” areas as well.
Edgington notes the particularly acute vulnerability of certain populations, such as the elderly, blue-collar workers, and minorities, including ethnic Koreans and Chinese and the descendents of the buraku outcaste. The unique experiences of these groups deserve a fuller, more in-depth investigation. (Indeed, one such study of elderly victims in this disaster has been published: Junko Otani’s Older People in Natural Disasters: The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which will be featured in a future post here at Teach 3/11.)
Finally, the negotiations between local people and the city, mediated through machi-zukuri organizations and professional planning consultants (usually provided by the city) are an interesting site of interaction between experts, officials and local lay people. Students and scholars may find it interesting to open up the details of these negotiations to see exactly how they were conducted, how the salient issues to be negotiated were identified and framed, and how competing visions for what kind of society was to be built were articulated and contested.
To supplement this reading, students might appreciate a series of short video clips, in which Prof. Edgington compares Kobe and Sendai.
Otani, Junko. 2010. Older People in Natural Disasters: The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Kyoto: Kyoto University Press and Portland, Or.: International Specialized Book Services.