Monday, September 10, 2007

A City's Memorial to its Catastrophe

Kobe, Japan, is a striking, elegant port city of about 1.5 million people. Last year, about this time of year, I spent a few days there. The dominant recent event in the city’s history was the great earthquake of Jan 17th , 1995, striking just about dawn , magnitude 7.3 on the Richter scale, killing about 6,400 persons, and leveling large parts of the city.

Kobe has recovered, and is as busy and bustling as any of Japan’s large cities, but Kobe’s citizens have not forgotten the great earthquake of 1995. In 2002, in a striking new building, an impressive museum opened, at once an exploration of the earthquake and the reaction to it, and a memorial to those who perished.

The museum is very powerful, and opens with a gut wrenching film in an innovative presentation, that tries to capture the chaos of the earthquake; bullet trains falling from their tracks, elevated highways buckling, buildings collapsing, and, everywhere, fire and destruction. There are dioramas and reconstructions of events, artifacts from the rubble, extensive displays on the reaction to the earthquake; how the citizens of Kobe tried to come together and help one another in the days after the earthquake. There were numerous video-taped testimonies of survivors and tributes to those who were killed in the earthquake. (Translations in English were provided.) Finally there was a section on mourning and memory; and how people have tried to come to terms with the catastrophe. I left the museum sobered and impressed by how, in their moment of direst need, the people of Kobe came together.

The point of this post, of course, is to make an invidious comparison between the response of Kobe to their catastrophe, and the response of New York City to the catastrophe of September 11th. The sixth anniversary is upon us, and certainly nothing like it is open, and nothing like the Kobe museum seems to be in the works.

I do not know why this is so. Perhaps it is more difficult to deal with the memory of a military attack than a natural event (though I don’t think we will see the Katrina Museum in New Orleans anytime soon) and it has become more difficult, not easier, to view 9/11 and its immediate aftermath as an event in itself, and not as a causus bellum for a fraudulent and disastrous war. The debate on how, where, and who to commemorate has become fractious, split into factions of families of survivors, hindered by political and money squabbles, and part of the general uncertainty and delay surrounding the development of the World Trade Center site. Perhaps a Buddhist and karmic civilization like Japan, with its underlying notion of rebirth, finds it easier to commemorate the dead en masse, unlike the Judeo-Christian culture in the United States, which places great importance of the memory of each person as distinct and different.

In any event, seven years after its great catastrophe, Kobe had a place to mourn and remember, where schoolchildren too young to remember the events or foreigners like myself who knew little of the earthquake could learn its history. New York City, six years on, really has nothing comparable, and nothing likely to be built in the near future.

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