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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005


Quake hit foreign community at its roots

Second in a series Staff writer KOBE -- Ten years after the deadly earthquake, the structure of Kobe's traditional foreign community has changed, with fewer Westerners and a growing number of East Asians living in the port city.

Of the Kansai region's three major cities -- Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe -- it is Kobe that has long considered itself the most open to foreigners.

From the 1870s onward, the city was home to a diverse group of foreign residents -- Americans, Europeans, Chinese and, after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Indians -- each with their own neighborhoods, social clubs and even newspapers printed in their own languages.

Today, Kobe is still home to many foreigners, some of whom can trace their family roots in the city back five generations. But few Westerners are moving in, and many long-term residents are leaving for Tokyo, China or elsewhere.

At the same time, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Chinese and Korean residents, especially in private international schools, which were once the domain of Westerners. According to local foreign residents, the trend, which began in the 1980s, accelerated after the quake.

As of last October, there were 44,449 registered foreigners living in Kobe. These included 23,755 Koreans, 12,203 Chinese, 1,109 Vietnamese and 1,067 Indians. By contrast, there were 1,245 Americans, 463 Britons and 245 Canadians.

Neither the Hyogo Prefectural Government nor the city of Kobe had comparable figures from before the quake.

"I don't think there's any question that we've seen a decrease in the number of Western residents, as many moved out for better opportunities in China or their home countries. One area where we've noticed a real difference is in the international schools, where over the past few years there have been fewer Western children and more from East Asia, especially (South) Korea," said George Gibbons, a Kobe resident from Britain who recently retired as an official at Marist Brothers International School.

While exact figures were not available, a Kobe official said the number of ethnic Korean residents has seen a slight increase over the past four years.

He attributed the rise to a growing interest in Kobe as a base in Japan for South Korean professionals, especially those in the medical profession, who come to work at the World Health Organization office in Kobe.

The cause for the decline in the number of Westerners appears to be due less to the quake itself than to the policies of the local governments and business community afterward.

The frustration of long-term Western residents -- who had believed they were part of the local community -- began shortly after the earthquake, when the city of Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture began drawing up plans for the rebuilding that emphasized the city's international history.

"Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture made huge mistakes in the months after the earthquake by ignoring the advice and offers of assistance of the Western community on how to rebuild in ways that would both keep foreigners who were already here and attract foreign investment," said a Tokyo-based Western diplomat who used to live in Kobe.

"Decisions on how to build an 'international city' were made by bureaucrats behind closed doors with no consultation," he added.

Meanwhile, over the past five years in particular, Kobe and Hyogo have launched a series of publicity campaigns to attract foreign investment.

But John Lawrence, a former American resident of Kobe who moved to Yokohama after the quake, echoed the complaints of many Westerners when he said Kobe's pride in its history got in the way of doing what was needed to retain foreign, and especially Western, investment.

"The idea of Kobe attracting foreign investment just on the merits of being Kobe (isn't) going to work anymore. There are simply too many ports in the region (Yokohama, Hong Kong, Singapore, Pusan, South Korea, Subic Bay, Philippines, etc.) that are more competitive," Lawrence said.

"When you consider the rail and air infrastructure costs, and the secondary costs of getting goods to markets downstream, Kobe is not a good bargain at all," he said.

And it's not just the structure of the traditional communities of Westerners that has changed since the quake.

Peter Tolhurst, the Lay Assistant Chaplin at Kobe Mariners' Center, originally set up to serve Western sailors, said that over the past few years most crews are from the Philippines or other parts of Asia.

"In addition, crews are not spending as long in port as they used to. Whereas in the past, a ship might come in for a few days or a week, sometimes they come and go within eight hours, which means they often barely have time to get off of the ship and call home," he said.

Kobe's long-established Asian communities are still around. In the aftermath of the quake, much attention was focused on Nagata Ward, home to about 660 Vietnamese.

At the time, many of them worked in small workshops, especially factories that made plastic shoes, in and around JR Shin-Nagata Station.

Today, few of these factories remain.

"Many were destroyed in the quake, and afterward the Vietnamese who were there moved on. Today, we see more Korean laborers working in the various small factories of Kobe than other Asians," said Mike Makino, a Nagata resident.

But interest in Nagata Ward in helping out resident Asians remains strong. Several nongovernmental organizations, including the Takatori Community Center, were established after the quake to provide assistance to the resident Asian community, and they continue today.

Ayako Shimizu, who lives in Nagata and works with several NGOs set up to assist the foreign community, said the quake brought the previously isolated Asian communities and Japanese together.

"Nagata Ward in particular has a long history of welcoming outsiders, so it's no surprise that many Japanese in Kobe remain interested in helping foreigners," Shimizu said. "I think that's one of the most positive legacies of the quake."

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