Quake chaos can't crack Japanese need for order

January 22, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Sun Staff Correspondent

KOBE, Japan -- Nature is chaotic; Japan is not.

Amid the wreckage from Tuesday's devastating earthquake, orderly lines emerge for water and food, strangers cooperate to make high school basketball courts livable refugee centers.

There has been no crime.

"There is no formal system," says David Pilgrim, an English businessman who lives among these people.

"But everyone is willing to wait in a queue, no one steals, no one loots.That is Japan; that is why it works."

The dedication to order takes place against a backdrop of desperation and extraordinary ruin.

Kobe's infrastructure -- the roads, water pipes, and other various services that form the backbone of any city -- are all shattered, along with 45,000 buildings and thousands of lives.

The local and national government have been criticized for responding slowly and ineptly, impeding rescue efforts and firefighting.

For Mr. Pilgrim and many other foreigners, at the moment Japan does not work well enough. He is considering leaving; many others in his situation have already departed.

Yet the Japanese government is only one facet governing Japanese society, and the disaster has brought into sharp relief more subtle systems that enable a ravaged city to support orderly life, if not international business.

The line between Kobe and the normal world -- between running water, solid buildings, stocked store shelves, cohesive government and potential anarchy -- exists in Nishinomiya.

The small bedroom community is about 7 miles from central Kobe, close to other major cities nearby, most importantly Kyoto and Osaka.

During the quake, this was where the destructive buckling of earth finally dissipated, leaving numerous wrecked buildings but sparing the railway station and the tracks leading away from Kobe.

Now it has become a natural transfer point.

Trains from Osaka bring package-bearing helpers, typically carrying fruit, bread, water, and rice cakes -- two-inch diameter balls or triangles of white rice that in good times are wrapped in seaweed and contain either fish or pickle, but, given the current urgency and short ages, are now just rice.

The departing trains take away refugees, a suitcase in one hand, a wheeled and loaded luggage cart in the other.

Yoshiko Kawabata rides into Nishinomiya as both a victim and a helper. Her home in Kobe survived the quake, and now her family of five has seven less fortunate guests, including another family of five.

The situation is common.

"They are welcome, they are my friends," says Ms. Kawabata.

Bikes replace cars

At the base of the stairs at Nishinomiya station, Hisayoki Kimura doesn't have much time to speak. "My house is fine; my problem is transportation," he says, as he quickly and successfully unpacks and assembles a brand-new, made-in-America mountain bike.

The few available roads into Kobe are impossibly gridlocked for cars, but bikes and scooters have little trouble weaving through the traffic, and people have adapted quickly.

Loads of unlocked bikes are parked at the station. Bicycles and umbrellas are said to be the only two items that might be stolen. But even this remains rare.

On Thursday, Mr. Kimura walked six hours from his Kobe home to Nishinomiya station, and then went on to Kyoto to purchase a bike. The way back, he estimates, will take only an hour.

He's carrying the usual array of bananas and bread, and a popular type of heating pad that activates when slapped against a table.

"I have only what is basic," he says. "I have what I need."

Need to be clean

Like orderliness, cleanliness is a national obsession, now more difficult to fulfill.

A pharmacy near the train station reopened Friday morning after a three-day suspension.

The first items to sell out -- and they sold out within minutes -- were shampoos and washing products that don't need additional water.

"Normally, said Soto Takagawa, the store manager, "none of this tends to sell."

Restocking cleaning preparations is now the top priority. No one in Japan wants to appear messy, for any reason.

Even Makiko Yuki, who had an excellent excuse.

The 21-year-old college student was stuck in the quake, and then on her way out of Kobe Friday, what should have been a 45-minute drive took six hours, ending only when she ran out of gas more than a mile from Nishinomiya.

She telephoned her boyfriend, Minoru Yoshimitsu, in Osaka, and he came to pick her up, walking to her car, then helping her to lug two heavy duffel bags back to the station.

Of course, she arrived at the station as Japanese women always tend to arrive on a date, wearing lipstick and unsmeared makeup, not a hair out of place.

Police, but no crime

Within Kobe, at the large prefectural police headquarters, scores of reporters mill around waiting for the hourly official posting of an ever-expanding list of people killed in the quake.

In addition to the 5,000 police normally assigned to Kobe, 10,000 others have been assigned since the disaster. All are directly involved in rescue operations, including tracking fatalities.

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