Kobe City Hall
19:17 Kobe , Kansai Prefecture-Japan :: 11 JUN 95

Sunlight sifts through leafy boughs. Green-tinged, it swaddles the room with peaceful rays. Two walls of glass panes open to nature’s embrace. City streets and city worries seem far removed.

“Do you hear it?”


“The sound.”

For a long time I don’t. Then it rises above the bird song, above the gentle breeze that worries the wind chimes; even above the subduing hum of distant traffic. But long before my searching ears pick it out, she hears it — her mind rises to it — she hears the siren.

One crisp January morning while the sun still slumbered, the earth rose up. It heaved and shimmied, bucked and careened. And when it stopped, the sirens began.

Fires to extinguish. Injured rushed to hospitals. Those still trapped to dig out. Infrastructure to restore. Debris to clear. A siren accompanied each fervent journey. Through a fortnight they sounded every minute of every hour of every day.

In many ways she was more fortunate than most. Though the contents of her home skittered and fell to lie jumbled and broken, though foundations and beams had creaked and moaned, the four walls stood and the roof remained intact. Her home could be reassembled.

But sitting amongst the shattered contents, she heard the sirens.

She hears them still.

City Hall
Kansai Prefecture, Japan

Taken during travels, 1995

I travelled through Japan for a couple of weeks. Tokyo, Kyoto, a profound 24 hours in Hiroshima, and a couple days in Kobe, staying with an American expat I’d met in Tokyo.

I wandered around Kobe for a couple or three days. It was in June, about 6 months after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake which had so devastated Kobe. There were fallen buildings everywhere. Commercial, industrial, residential. Metal twisted and shattered, wood broken and splintered. Roads cracked and heaved, sometimes leaving ridges a foot or more high.

Of course, I took my camera everywhere. But I never took it out. The loss of life every ruin signified just left me… dumb. I never took it out, but once: to photograph the city hall, of which the 6th floor had collapsed. Miraculously, no one was on it. No one died in the building. So, I felt, this one document will be OK. Just this one photograph.

It was dusk, nearly dark. I had the wrong film in the camera. Technically, it’s an awful photograph.

But it does tell a story.

My host, in just a few words, told me another story. She filled out the very human tragedy, the one which kept the camera from my hands, because any photographs I might have taken would have made me feel like a spectator of an aftermath. It was the only story I posted in my first blog about my experiences there.

Jennifer, I humbly — and with resonant sadness — submit this to the Earthquake edition of this week’s One Word Photo Challenge.