KOBE -- To commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan. 17, throngs of people not only from the Hanshin region, but from around the country flocked to Higashi Yuenchi Park here.
Hiroko Oishi, 68, who lives in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, ran her hand over the name of her daughter, Asami, engraved in a memorial monument at the park. "I wish I could've taken her place," she said.
It had been Asami's dream to become a kindergarten teacher. On the day of the earthquake that killed her at age 16, Asami, then a first-year high school student, had been studying into the wee hours of the morning.
Trapped under rubble for at least three hours, Hiroko called out to her daughter but did not get a response. "I was beside her," she said. "(When the shaking began) I was holding her hand. Why did I let go?" Although 23 years had passed, she said it felt like the disaster had happened just yesterday.
Tomoe Hirashima, 38, from the city's Chuo Ward, gazed at the flames rising from bamboo lanterns as she thought about her relative, Kazuo Miyahara, who was just 4 years old at the time. The two had been so close that they were often mistaken for brother and sister. The day before the massive quake, they had played hide-and-seek.
The morning of the 23rd memorial, Hirashima had been feeling unwell. But as she watched the memorial service on television, she was struck by the notion that Miyahara was waiting for her, and rushed to the scene. As she repeatedly re-lit the flames of bamboo lanterns that kept going out because of the rain, Hirashima said she hoped that as many lanterns as possible would burn for as long as possible. "From the flames, I feel the lives and the hopes of every single person who died," she said.
Among the ceremony participants were survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Toshikatsu Kisara, 61, of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, lost his then 50-year-old wife, Noriko, in the tsunami caused by the huge quake off the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. Kisara said that he would never forget what a volunteer said to him on his first visit to Kobe in 2014: "It'll be all right. Your city will recover without a doubt."
"When I was feeling anxious, the people of Kobe gave me encouragement," Kisara said. "I want to give back."