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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Kumamoto Quakes Then and Now

Oct. 14, 2016

Kumamoto is recovering 6 months after the area was hit by a series of powerful earthquakes. Repairs are underway on Kumamoto Castle, and a French resident is spreading the word that Mount Aso is worth visiting despite a recent eruption.

Kumamoto Castle was among the buildings that suffered serious damage. A 400-years-old fortress, it has been a source of great pride for the people of the city, which was one of the leading regions in Japan for centuries.

There were some 855 shelters that received a massive number of people who lost their homes or couldn't find other safe places to stay. As the recovery progresses, only 9 of those shelters remain open, but still, 200 people are living in them.

The first powerful quake struck on April 14 at 9:26 p.m. On the Japanese earthquake intensity scale, it measured maximum 7.

The tremor destroyed houses throughout the area.

"I thought something had exploded. I'd never experienced such a strong earthquake," says one local resident.

Over the next few days, more quakes struck. The largest, also measuring an intensity of 7, hit 2 days later.

Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged, it's stone walls collapsing, tiles falling from the tower.

The death toll rose to over 100. Some victims were trapped under rubble, while others died from the effects of living in poor conditions after the quake.

People who were no longer able to live in their homes were evacuated to shelters. At one time, the number of people in shelters exceeded 100,000.

"I can feel my fatigue building up, physically and mentally, but everyone here is in the same situation," says one evacuee.

Volcanic Mount Aso, a well-known tourist destination, suffered large-scale landslides. A major bridge collapsed, roads were cut and some still remain closed today.

Supplies and other support poured in from all over Japan and volunteers also arrived to do what they could. Temporary housing units were built and evacuees began to move in.

"Just moving in here feels like some kind of progress," says one evacuee.

However, there are still many damaged buildings and houses that have not been scheduled for repairs and the recovery process is ongoing.

Just as a sense of normalcy was beginning to return, Mount Aso erupted last week. It was the first explosive eruption of the mountain in 36 years. The eruption sent large volcanic stones flying more than one kilometer from the crater and volcanic ash fell over a wide area.

In the city of Aso, there was little damage caused by ash but some people have cancelled their bookings for accommodations. Concern is rising about the effects the calamity will have on the recovery process.


Situation Facing Kumamoto Castle

The powerful earthquakes destroyed the everyday lives of many people. Kumamoto Castle, known for its resilience, was not spared from the damage either but there are plans to put it back together.

The stone walls have collapsed in more than 50 places. Thirteen structures designated as important cultural properties by the Japanese government were also damaged.

"I thought the recovery had progressed, but I realize that there's still a long way to go," says one tourist.

"I'm close to tears. I once climbed to the top of the castle. I never imagined the walls would collapse," says another.

Teruo Shirano is a volunteer guide. His many years of working in the travel industry serve him well, as he guides foreign visitors around the castle and the city.

He points to a piece of rubble with small square holes in it, which warriors used to shoot at enemies approaching the castle.

Kumamoto Castle was built over 400 years ago, and is considered one of the strongest fortresses ever built in Japan. However, it was not spared from damage caused by the earthquake.

Shirano also points out that the northwestern corner watch tower is still standing, which he is amazed by.

The Inui Yagura is one of the castle's 21 towers and while it was damaged but it's still standing.

"This must been the heaviest ever hit earthquake for Kumamoto castle in 400 years," Shirano says.

He also shows visitors some safety precautions being taken at the castle, including large sand bags that are stacked along stone walls to keep them from collapsing if another quake strikes.

Massive sandbags weighing 1 ton each have been stacked on top of each other. Parts of Kumamoto Castle are currently off limits but other areas are open to the public.

"Well thanks to visitors, not only domestic but foreign visitors as well, they are interested in visiting Kumamoto castle at this time," Shirano says.

Repairing the castle is expected to take years, but "still we can do a little by little and to strive" to restore the historic structure, he says.

The castle is designated an Historic Landmark and an Important Cultural Property by the central government, making it eligible for state funds and subsidies.

However, this means that there are rules and regulations that must be followed on the methods that can be used to restore and manage the property.


Piecing Together Kumamoto Castle

The city of Kumamoto is currently focusing its restoration efforts on recovering debris. Artisans who specialize in the repair of cultural properties are slowly gathering up the pieces.

Why is this first step necessary? According to the guidelines for restoring Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures, as much original material as possible must be recovered, to determine whether it can be used in rebuilding the property.

"Now, we can work out how old the original building materials were, how old the tree was and also when the building materials were produced. We can get all that information from one piece of lumber," says one artisan.

This month, the managers of the restoration project reported on their efforts to recover the turret's debris.

"We heard today that a great deal of original material has been recovered, and there’s a 90 percent chance we can reuse it," an official says.

The first hurdle on the path to reconstruction has been cleared. Yet, even as the team makes progress, the next challenge looms into view: How can they ensure that the reconstructed building will be earthquake-resistant? This is an important legal requirement when rebuilding historic monuments.

This process enables them to confirm that many joints and pieces that connect pillars to beams have been badly damaged. If they’re reused, the team won’t be able to ensure that the building is earthquake-resistant.

In order to ensure that the building can resist any future tremors, the city government is considering using modern construction techniques.

"We need to ensure its safety, durability and earthquake resistance in order to avoid it collapsing in a future earthquake," says Tatsuo Amita, deputy director of the Kumamoto Castle Research Center. "We have to consider using modern construction techniques while respecting its status as an Important Cultural Property."


Kenji Kani, a member of the volunteer guide group, joins anchor Sho Beppu in Kumamoto.

Beppu: What does the castle mean to the people of the city?

Kani: The castle of Kumamto has been with the people of Kumamto for the past 400 years. The castle is a place where citizens can enjoy spending free, leisurely times without caring about day to day trifle matters. The castle is like our aged parents always watching us with their gentle, affectionate eyes. It is a treasure we most care for.

Beppu: What were your thoughts when you first saw the damage to the castle?

Kani:It was a shock for most of the people of Kumamoto. Two weeks later we held a general meeting for the Kumamoto volunteer guide. The meeting was dominated with depressed atmosphere and everybody thought there would be no request for our guide service for 5 years or much longer because of the disaster. Actually, there was no demand for guide service in April and May.

Beppu: But the situation has changed, right?

Kani: At the end of June, about two months after the quake, the first request, asking for our guide service, came in. That was good news for the volunteer guide group. We were overjoyed, to hear the first request for guide service. The number of the visitors to Kumamto castle, has been increasing, slowly but steadily, finally in September reaching about 12,000. The figure is about 2-times bigger than that in the same month last year. Now we are trying our best to make the present situations turning from the better to the best in the near future.


Kirk Masden, an associate professor at Kumamoto Gakuen University, joins anchor Sho Beppu in Kumamoto.

Beppu: We hear you got in contact with people in the foreign community immediately after the quakes. How were they doing?

Masden: After the quakes, I spent part of my time interacting with foreign residents of Kumamoto online, but most of my face-to-face interaction was with exchange students at my university. I stopped by their dormitory pretty regularly after the main quake to check up on them and try to reassure them. The day after the biggest earthquake, one student was in tears as she spoke with her parents on Skype. I joined the conversation with her parents and, naturally, they were very concerned. I was afraid that she would wind up leaving soon but, thankfully, all of the students stuck it out and finished the semester here in Kumamoto. The parents later told me that they appreciated being able to read the updates we posted on Facebook.

Beppu: So you're pouring a lot of information through your Facebook page.

Masden: Right, and it's not just me, I have some friends who help me edit and put out information. Once the quakes hit, we just tried to post any and all kinds of quake-related information that we could find. In the first month we posted over 450 times. Some of those posts were translations of Japanese information and in some post s we just shared information that was already available on the internet in English in order to make it easier for our readers to find. The post that got the biggest response, almost 50,000 views, which is much more than we would normally have.

Beppu: Based on your experience, what would be your suggestions?

Masden: One would be for local governments. Anytime information can be presented visually, that would be very useful. I would also like to suggest for people to participate in online organizations or networks, or face-to-face groups ordinarily, then when something bad happens those organizations and networks help people cooperate and meet demands that they're going to face.


Getting the Message Out
Akinori Yoshimoto

A French resident near Moun Aso, one of the largest volcanoes in Japan, is sending out the latest information about the area. The volcano erupted last Saturday, and residents there were also hit hard by the earthquakes in April.

In a sign of recovery in the local tourism industry, visitors from Japan and overseas are starting to return to the area.

Buses head out to a variety of tourist attractions. There were a lot of Chinese and European tourists on one recent day.

"We rented some bikes and we biked all the way up the mountain that way, and today, we're going to some onsen," says one male visitor.

Last year, almost a million and a half tourists visited the Aso roadside station. It’s a rest stop on the side of a major road that's home to stores selling local specialties, and is also the visitor information center.

Franck Limoges comes from France, and works at the roadside station where many foreign tourists come seeking information about the area. Franck welcomes tourists in both French and English. Since 2014, he has also been posting information about Aso on his blog.

"I really fell in love with this place. What I really wanted to do is to make this place known to the world," he says.

Franck first visited the area in 2013, after arriving at Kumamoto University to study Japanese culture. He married a local woman and decided to stay in Kumamoto.

He was here when the earthquakes struck 6 months ago, and was posting information online again about one week after the disaster.

Franck headed for Mount Aso soon after the eruption and put up reports on his blog. Some places had been covered in ash, but not everywhere.

I wanted to show people that it was OK to come here, that there are things to see, things to do -- so that’s the main reason," he says.

Franck has been posting information that he thinks will help foreign travelers -- information on everything from local festivals to specialty stores that have reopened and road conditions.

For one recent report, he visited Aso Shrine. The shrine dates back about 2,300 years. The 2-story Romon gate has been designated an Important Cultural Property.

"Many foreigners have donated money to us directly. I'm a little surprised and very grateful for the support from foreign people," Hidetaka Ikeura, an official at the shrine, tells him.

Frank is planning to call for further support for the shrine from around the world. He returned to the roadside station late in the afternoon after visiting the shrine, and soon posted his information online.

He thinks it’s important to keep the information about the shrine updated.

"Romon Gate is an important culture and property in Japan. This is a really interesting place to see... because you can’t find this kind of information in English usually. So maybe the only way to do it and some people are interested in it," Franck says.


Beppu: Earlier you spoke about how the exchange students at your university responded to the earthquakes. Do you have a sense of how the foreign community as a whole responded?

Masden: One thing that I was very happy to see was how many people expressed an interest in donating or volunteering. Actually, several of the exchange students at my university volunteered to help people with disabilities who had taken refuge there. The foreigners I known have been more interested in providing help than in receiving it. I think there are a lot non-Japanese, both people who live here now and people who used to live here, who really care a lot about this place.

Beppu: What are your hopes for Kumamoto's future?

Masden: I hope that more people will come to Kumamoto. We took a big hit with the earthquakes and the recent eruption of Mt. Aso has scared a lot of tourists away but, if people come here, I think they'll find that Kumamoto still has a lot of offer: onsen, the Amakusa Islands, the food is great. Day-to-day life in Kumamoto is much nicer than the impression you might get from news coverage so I really encourage people to come and take a look for themselves.