The chime of the Kobe Friendship Bell echoed throughout Seattle Center on Friday afternoon, replacing the quiet hush of a crowd of approximately 60 people who had gathered to mark the anniversary of one of Japan’s most devastating natural disasters.
At 12:46 p.m. (5:46 a.m. the following day in Japan) the group observed a moment of silence to commemorate the exact minute 20 years ago that the magnitude-6.8 Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Seattle’s longtime sister city of Kobe. A total of 6,434 people lost their lives in the quake, which caused approximately $100 billion U.S. in damage.
Two decades later, the rebuilding is all but complete, but memories of the destruction remain.
Karin Zaugg Black, a Seattle native and president of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association, was living in Kobe at the time of the quake, working in city government as part of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program.
“My personal recollection is waking up and being shook all around, and then just trying to scramble for a door way,” Zaugg Black said. “…being sort of thrown to the opposite wall on the different side of the room, so just sort of a very jarring, like, ”Oh my God, what is going on?’ kind of thing.”
Meanwhile in Seattle, Yutaka and Tazue Sasaki — organizers of the annual Seattle Cherry Blossom & Japanese Cultural Festival — were approached by then-Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson about a possible way to honor the victims.
In the end, they found an appropriate way to honor those victims: ringing a 600-pound bell given to Seattle by Kobe as a gift for the 1962 World’s Fair, and reciting the name of each person lost. The memorial took four straight days, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and involved over 3,000 people.
“In Buddhist tradition, there’s no such thing as hitting the bell for the victim,” Yutaka Sasaki said. “[In] American tradition, like in a maritime accident, they ring the bell in the ship, so we thought we could do something like that.”
“I think it’s part of what makes us a global city, is that we connect around the world. And we don’t connect for one trade mission or one short-term trip to sweep through the country, but we connect as people through culture,” Anderson said. “So it’s totally appropriate that our hearts went out, cause we’re connected to them, they’re part of our bigger community in the world.”
While 20 years have passed since the earthquake, Zaugg Black said there’s great meaning in continuing the mark the occasion from half a world away.
“It’s very meaningful for folks in Kobe and Hyogo [Prefecture] to know that we are gathering here in our sister city,” Zaugg Black said. “That’s just a really neat symbol of how strong our ties are.”
To this day, Seattle and Kobe continue to boast a strong sister city relationship, now in it’s 58th year. The cities engage in several youth and teen exchange programs, and also swap jazz vocalists on a yearly basis, with the winner of the last 10 Kobe Shinkaichi Jazz Vocal Queen Contests making their U.S. debut at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley.
Even in the world of sports, Seattle Reign FC forward Nahomi Kawasumi spent six seasons with INCA Kobe Leonessa in the Japanese L. League before making her debut in the Emerald City in 2014. Before that, it was Ichiro Suzuki, playing nearly a decade with the then-Kobe-based Orix Blue Wave before joining the Mariners in 2001.
“We’re always sort of having different exchanges, whether it’s through sports, education or arts,” Zaugg Black said.
Consul General of Japan in Seattle Masahiro Omura, who also attended Friday’s ceremony, told the crowd he expects to see those connections continue to grow.
“I hope such partnerships flourish in the years to come.”
With the sister city relationship reaching the 60-year mark in 2017, Zaugg Black seems confident that will be the case.
“2017 will be a very big year for us,” she said.