Tora San

Nakamura Senichi, 57, sole-proprietor, Kobe-shi Nagata-ku

 Feb 1995, a residents’ association named ‘Ganbarou Kai’ was founded at the Mahiru Primary School evacuation center. I became the chairman of the self-run evacuation center that housed 1500 victims (3000 on the day of the quake). At the inaugural speech, I said, “This association has just been formed, but, together with everyone here, I will do my best to dissolve it as soon as possible.” My speech was met with furious opposition. It might have been taken as an improper comment to the ears of the victims, but I had also lost my house and shop to fires. Till today, I am still bewildered over the unexpected reaction.

Even with that kind of response, I took over the leadership and negotiated with the
Kobe Municipality to remove the rubble. Some victims wanted to rebuild their houses fast. But my requests were turned down because the dumping site was not decided yet. I made frequent visits to the district office, and on April 11th, approval finally came after the so-called three-party agreement was signed.

Our areas included the 3rd and 4th Wakamatsu neighborhoods and the 3rd and 4th Ohashi neighborhoods. These neighborhoods could only build two-storied houses due to the restrictions imposed by the ‘Planning Decision and Redevelopment of Type 2 Urban Area’. The chairman of the association, who served as the facilitator, had lost his life in the earthquake. Thus, I contacted and discussed with the board members of the four neighborhoods with regard to how we could rebuild the areas under the restriction of private rights. After several meetings, the ‘Owaka District Restoration Committee’ was formed on
March 24th, 1995. Temporarily, the board members of the respective residents’ associations doubled as the board members of this committee. Then, I attended various gatherings at various venues about what kind of neighborhoods should be created. I was learning furiously about urban building, restoration and redevelopment.

On the other hand, fellow occupants at the evacuation center would put a lot of difficult questions to me and pressured me for the answers when I returned to the center. At the center, we would hold class meetings with each classroom representing a class, and try to resolve problems. I had to attend to these meetings and participate in the ‘Council for Community Building that Capitalizes on the Strength of Nagata’. I learned the opinions, knowledge and experience of the attending representatives, and presented them at our residents’ meetings where we studied the redevelopment together. There are many occupants who lived in makeshift houses while others were waiting for these houses. A general meeting by the residents’ association of Ohashi 3-chome was held to reelect the board member on April 15th. Many residents were not contactable. The residents’ name list was completed in June 1996.

At the community building gatherings, discussions did not just focus on the hardware but the software too. As the image of Nagata is that of a downtown and in turn, that of Tora san, calls were made to make it the location for the movie It’s tough being a man.

Amidst all these developments, I planned to rebuild my shop as the rubble of my burnt shop had been removed, but I could not seem to find a building contractor. I had no choice but to turn to my wife’s brother-in-law, who was a carpenter, for help. He did the prefab part but stopped at that, as he had no contact of local interior contractors. I engaged some contactors on my own, but was shocked at the exorbitant fees at the end of the work.

The price of timber had soared due to restrict sale. The gas service never came. When I made an inquiry, I was told that the main line had been not restored yet, and there was no schedule to connect the service to individual houses.

I ran a canteen before the quake. With this condition, I would never be able to resume business. I could not even project how much it would cost me in monetary loss. I did what I could myself. I even mounted the plaster, steel plates and did the painting myself. My business resumed on
May 26th, 1995, and I left the evacuation center on that day.

As the first shop to return to the burnt site of Wakamatsu 4 chome, we were surrounded by rubble. It felt eerie at night. But I was happy for two reasons: I was out of the evacuation center and above all, I was able to sleep on my own quilt at home. I did not know I would be so moved by such common things. The feeling was complex when I thought of the occupants who had no prospect of leaving the evacuation center. Although mine was a makeshift house, I would not exchange the happiness of sleeping in my own house for anything.

In early June, the restoration work on the Shinnagata station house of the completely destructed JR shifted into full swing. There were talks about the station having only one exit. I did some study, and found that it was to be on the west side, which seemed to in line with the redevelopment of
Kobe City. If they were going to do away with the east exit, it would deal a huge blow to the surrounding vendors. Thus, the ‘East Exit for JR Shinnagata Station Group’ was formed to engage in a prolonged negotiation with JR and Kobe City, but no good news was forthcoming. As the board members of the community building committee also acted as the board members of the residents’ association, a general meeting had to be convened early to obtain approval from the board members.

The workers came and the construction work for my business went smoothly. Work about making the location for It’s tough being a man had also moved into the high gear, and we became busier.

On September 7th, 1995, the inaugural meeting for “Welcome Tora San” was held, and the event was given en extensive coverage on the newspapers and televisions. Location filming was to be carried out on December 24th. We were up to our neck with the preparations and media handling, so much so that my wife even questioned me about my priorities, “Which is more important - your business or Tora San?” “But there was no turning back now that we were at that stage,” I defended myself and threw myself into the preparations. It was something good coming from the disaster-struck areas, and the media got all excited over its coverage.

A target was set for the official launch of the community building committee around November. Work was being carried out to write up the regulations, and prepare for the launch. In between these events, we went to the headquarters of West JR to petition for the east exit, but were told that no change was possible. Saving on the construction fees and restoration time were cited as the reasons, but we were sure those were not the real reasons.

On October 24th, the much awaited location filming was suspended due to rain. It was completed on the 25th, and we were relieved that it had gone smoothly. 

The community building committee was formed for the four neighborhoods, and the ‘East Exit for JR Shinnagata Station Group’ was launched officially on December 26th. In the subsequent year, more than 20 houses were being rebuilt in Ohashi 3 Chome. Thus, the residents’ association planned to put up new streetlights, but electrical work just would not start. Repeated complaints were made before it finally got underway in late February. When the work was completed on March 1st, the street looked very bright.

Then came 1996, and the ‘Owaka District Restoration Committee’ gatherings for the four neighborhoods were held twice a month. Consultants were roped in to discuss how this burnt ruin could be best restored. No consensus was reached as people had different interests. Very often, meetings would begin at 6 pm and end after 9 pm. During such occasions, I would recall the class meetings at the evacuation center, and feel rather depressed.

On the other hand, the service of the Shinnagata station house of JR was to be started on
April 3rd, 1996. Again, we started talking to the Kobe branch of JR. This time they promised to link it to the redevelopment project, and channeled the traffic flow to the east exit. Although we were still not satisfied, we had no choice but to settle with that.

The community building committees of each neighborhood held their own meetings, but the attendance rates were poor. The same complaints were heard from the leaders of other districts. Why? Was it because makeshift housing had a higher priority than redevelopment? Was it because those in makeshift houses were only concerned with how quick they could return to their constituents? How do we build a neighborhood with due consideration for 10 or 20 years down the road? There was no answer. The people involved had different interests.

Then, at the ‘Owaka District Restoration Committee’ ad hoc general meeting held on
June 1st, 1996, the participants were divided over the community building plan. Ohashi 3 Chome community building committee, to which I belonged, decided to withdraw its membership from the four-neighborhood committee. I felt absurd having to leave the very committee I started.

Once the new station was launched into service, the path in front of my shop became the shortcut to the station. Several times more people than that of the pre-quake would pass by every day. Most of the roads along the vacant sites were not lighted in the night. Therefore, the operators of the twelve stores formed a shopping mall, and appealed to the authorities to bright light to the streets. The ‘Shinnagata Station Fukkodoori Shopping Mall’ was launched on June 2nd, 1996. Then, student volunteers of the Kobe University of Commerce were engaged to conduct a survey on the flow of commuters. According to the result, more people coming out of the station would go south and take the No. 2 national road. But the traffic light on the east was used because there was no traffic light at the point of their exit, and it was inconvenient. This time, a ‘Traffic Light Group’ was formed to present a petition for traffic lights to the Nagata Police. We were told that the authorities would study the prefecture budget and priorities but there would not be any action for the time being.

After withdrawing from the community building committee, several meetings were held amongst the board members of the residents’ association from July 16th. On August 7th, the news of the sudden decease of Mr Atsumi Kiyoshi, the actor for Tora San, came in. We held an urgent ‘Welcome Tora San’ board meeting and decided to hold a memorial service. ‘Shinkobe Oriental theatre’ approached us to offer their full assistance. With their help, the preparation went underway, and the memorial service was held on September 8th at the theatre.

With scarcely a breathing space in between, board meetings was held on September15th, 17th and 18th. On the 19th, the ‘Ohashi 3 Chome Ad Hoc General Meeting’ was held and our withdrawal was granted. Now, we had to talk to
Kobe City about granting recognition to 3 Chome’s own community building committee. Everything returned to ground zero.

Other consultants came on November 11th, 16th and 18th and gave us advice on how to proceed with community building. We had to decide on the choice of consultants, and conduct the general meeting early to get back the lost time.

It has been a year and nine months since the quake struck, and I have been through all these. I was a person who had no particular principles or strong opinions before the quake. What was it that has driven me to this stage?

Looking back, I find that there was only one thing good about the whole experience – I was busy with various chores, and had not time to calm down. For future community building gatherings, I sure will keep Tora San’s words in mind: Say that and we are finished.