It was during her days as a student at a girls' school that author Kuniko Mukoda endured the Great Tokyo Air Raids of 1945. The next day, after her family somehow managed to survive, her father declared, "The next time we'll be done for. Let's eat something nice at the end before we die." The family of five boiled some white rice, and dug up some sweet potatoes that they fried up into tempura.
In an essay she wrote afterward, Mukoda described this as her most memorable meal. Even if a meal is bereft of good flavor and happiness, in life-or-death situations, it's hard for people to forget what they ate.
There are surely many people who went through similar circumstances in the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Western Japan 23 years ago to this day, on Jan. 17, 1995.
At the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution in Kobe's Chuo Ward, there is currently an exhibit about meals that volunteer storytellers and others first ate after the disaster. Kurumi Kishimoto, 30, an earthquake disaster resource expert at the center, came up with the idea for the project with the hope that discussion about food would inspire people to reflect on the day of the disaster.
One couple buried alive when their home collapsed in the quake were rescued after about seven hours. Still trembling with fear, their family of four shared some small pieces of bread in a shelter, and realized that someone would save their lives if they didn't give up.
A woman who was trapped under her home was rescued along with her husband after they encouraged each other. But the surroundings in their town had been reduced to rubble and they managed to survive by drinking water gushing out from the side of the road, possibly from a broken water pipe. Several days later the woman went to buy some supplies. The water she was served at a coffee shop was clean and clear, and she remembers the taste to this day.
There were also people thankful for the rice balls they received at shelters -- cold but made with love. Though that day is far in the past, memories of the food people ate still clearly bring to mind the importance of helping each other and saving lives. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)