My son back in my homeland

Shi Laoping, 37, foreign student, Kobe-shi Higashinada-ku (China)


I experienced the Tangshan Earthquake when it struck China 19 years ago. I had never thought I would encounter another major earthquake in Kobe 19 years later.


In the staff dormitory of the Sakura Bank in
Kobe, I was fast asleep in the wee hours. All of a sudden, I was thrown out of my bed by what I perceived to be a huge force. The effect was so great that my immediate attempt to get up ended in vain. “Must be an earthquake! Oh no, I don’t want to die!”

I covered myself with a duvet, darted out of the room and down the stairs in darkness. Fifth, fourth, third floor... at last, I found myself at the corridor of the ground floor, only to find a toppled vending machine lying in front of me like a metal casket and blocking my route of escape. I negotiated it and ran out of the dormitory.

Surviving victims, eager to contact their love ones, formed long queues of 10 – 20 persons in front of every telephone booth. I joined the shortest one, waiting to make an international call. When it came to my turn after a long wait, the telephone simply refused to accept my card no matter how I tried to insert it. A Japanese standing next in line pointed out that it now accepted coins only due to the power failure. But I did not have a single coin with me! After exchanging my useless phone card for some coins with some kind soul, I rejoined the queue. Finally, it was my turn again. Guess what this time? The coin phone was fed too many coins that it could not take in any more!

I returned to the dormitory between aftershocks. My room was literally turned upside down, as if someone had purposely messed up everything in it.

The desk by the wall was now found in the center of the room. The television set had flown from the southwest corner of the room to the northeast corner. The books were piled up like mountains and it took me a long while to locate my dentures. I pulled out the telephone from under the waste paper, and was surprised and happy at the same time to find that it still worked. I rang my father in Beijing and gave a short account of the catastrophe as calmly as I could. Then, I contacted my four teachers in the central and west districts of the city and in Osaka. Fortunately, they were all unharmed.


I lived in Kobe-shi Higashida-ku, which turned out to have suffered the highest death toll and casualties. The one-storied and two-storied houses situated on the north of my dormitory were flattened. Since the Japanese generally consider their companies as important as their families, many headed towards their workplaces to check out the condition. Others returned to the quake sites to help in the search-and-rescue efforts.

Victims whose families had been rescued were able to provide relatively accurate information. So the rescue efforts went smoothly. Still, it took a lot of time and effort to rescue just one victim from a house that had collapsed completely.


To search for survivors, we broke up windows and doors, and removed furniture to move through the rubble. Then, at some point, a boy with swollen and purple legs was pulled out from the wretch, followed by his mother. He could not utter a word and he folded his stiff arms across his chest during the entire process. We wrapped the mother and son with blankets. An ambulance came but it had capacity for one more casualty only. We pushed the boy into the vehicle, and carried the mother to the hospital using a table as an improvised stretcher. We had to make detours on the way as many houses had collapsed and were in the way.

At the hospital, we laid the mother down on a tatamii. The place had so many casualties that the queues had extended to the road outside the hospital. The mother and son were diagnosed with light injuries, given some medicine and asked to wait for treatment at night. Left with no other choices, we decided to carry the mother and son back to the dormitory and take care of them.

All this while, I really missed my son. He lives in Beijing and is ten years old. However, in the first five years of his life, I had been busy with work and had not spent much time with him. Then I spent the next five years studying in Japan, and did not return even once to see him. In my mind, I had always felt bad about it, but now, I did not feel like making up excuses to him. I wrote him a short letter instead.

“My dear Tian, Kobe has just been struck by a disastrous earthquake. I really miss you. I love you. I pray for your health, and wish that you grow up a tenacious man with a sense of purpose in life.  – Daddy writing from an earthquake-shakenJapan

Knowing that almost everything was paralyzed by the quake and that my letter might not get delivered at all, I posted it anyway. I did not think I would die, but could not rule out the possibility that death might befall me. That was why I wrote the letter, though I hoped it would not be my dying note.

The evacuation center was full of life. It is always said that the Japanese are relatively introvert and quiet. A group of Japanese will never be as noisy as a group of Chinese. But at this time of emergency, change was visible. The Japanese talked to and shared their food with fellow victims that were otherwise strangers. They even looked more optimistic and cheerful than before.

This earthquake has affected my doctorate thesis schedule, but witnessing this great earthquake and the Japanese society in a time of emergency is a valuable experience to me.

I will always feel sorry for the Chinese students who died in this earthquake. Amongst them was Weihong, a female student who had interpreted for the Emperor and Empress during their visit to China. At the invitation of the NPO Japan-China Friendship Association of Osaka, Weihong came to the graduate school of the Osaka University last October to study Economics. She had lived in the dormitory of the association. The dormitory was completely destroyed, and her body was found under the rubble. Her husband was scheduled to visit her on January 19th, but the earthquake denied them their reunion and struck in the gray of the morning on January 17th.



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