25 years on, memories of disaster help next generation of foreign students

On January 17, 1995, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake devastated Western Japan. Striking at the heart of a metropolitan area that includes Kobe and Osaka, the earthquake claimed 6,434 lives and was at the time the deadliest natural disaster in postwar Japanese history.

The region is home to some of the country's most prestigious schools, in which large numbers of foreign students were enrolled at the time. In the months following the disaster, one Japanese teacher at Kobe University found that her students were having a particularly difficult time dealing with their loss. She urged them to record their feelings in writing, in their mother tongues, as a way to process a grief they were unable to share because of the language barrier. 25 years on, these memories provide a look at the unique hardships the earthquake caused its foreign victims, and offer insight into how such suffering can be avoided in the future.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake set off multiple fires in Kobe City, causing extensive damage in the city center.

Processing the grief

About half a year after the disaster, Kobe University published a collection of writings on the earthquake by its foreign students. 56 contributed to the volume and it was published in Japanese and English.

Foreign students wrote accounts of the earthquake in a wide range of languages, including Chinese, Korean, and Russian.

The writings were compiled by Ikuko Seguchi, a Japanese teacher at the university. She also works as an advisor for foreign students, helping them acclimate to life in Japan.

She says she realized in the weeks after the disaster that many of her students were suffering from a pain made more severe by their lack of Japanese ability. Unable to share their feelings with anyone, they were forced to internalize the agony.

"I took one student out to eat," Seguchi says. "She didn't touch her food. For over two hours, all she did was talk about the earthquake: the friends she lost, about how it had changed her life as a student. And I realized, she couldn't be the only one. There were others who were suffering in the same way. So I said, 'Why don't you write what you just told me in your own language?' I thought it might help ease her pain."

Ikuko Seguchi, a Japanese teacher at Kobe University, compiled the writings of foreign foreign students.

Thin Aye Aye Ko, from Myanmar, was a foreign student at the time. Two of her close friends from home were killed in the disaster. She says both had arrived at the school with the hope of building the beginnings of a cultural bridge between their country and Japan.

Aye Ko was devastated by the loss of her friends. She wrote, "This can't be true. I want to believe it's a lie. I want to scream out. I didn't want to lose both of them."

Living for others

Thin Aye Aye Ko is now a Japanese teacher in Myanmar.

After graduation, Aye Ko returned to Myanmar to live out her friends' dream. She started a Japanese language school and has helped more than 500 youngsters go on to study at Japanese universities.

"I have a responsibility," she wrote at the time. "My friends couldn't realize their dream so I have to persevere in their place."

25 years on, Aye Ko says there hasn't been a day that she has forgotten about this commitment.

"Many students from Myanmar now attend Kobe University," she says. "The ties between my country and my school have become very strong. When I look at it like that, I can tell my friends with confidence that I've achieved their dreams."

Aye Ko visited Japan last year and paid tribute to her friends.

Lessons from the previous generation

Seguchi says the writings provided a valuable lesson on the shortcomings of the university's foreign student support system. For example, she realizes now Japanese language lessons were needed not just for the students and visiting researchers, but for the family members they often bring along. Currently, 13 students are studying in the class. The class includes students, researchers, and their family members.

The year after the earthquake, Seguchi also set up an organization to help foreign students connect with larger on-campus groups and the local community. She says the writings taught her that foreign students are more prone to isolation and have a greater need for such programs.

Seguchi's group hosts a variety of activities, such as Japanese cooking and calligraphy classes. One event, in which students and citizens wear kimono and learn about the dress, has been running continuously for over 20 years.

"After I get home from class at 9 p.m., I don't talk to anyone," said one student who took part in the kimono event. He says he joined the group for the chance to meet and talk to people.

Seguchi has been organizing a kimono class for over 20 years. It provides foreign students with a chance to interact with members of the local community.

Seguchi believes that coming into contact with larger communities on a regular basis will make it easier for foreign students to ask for help when they need it. A quarter of a century on, painful memories from the earthquake are helping the current generation of foreign students feel more at home at school.