Pandemic deals hit museums commemorating the great Hanshin quake

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AWAJI, Hyogo Prefecture — After nearly a quarter of a century, a museum here dedicated to passing on the lessons of the Great Hanshin earthquake is struggling with falling visitor numbers as the coronavirus pandemic struck the latest blow.

Masayuki Komeyama, 55, general manager of Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park in Awaji, Hyogo Prefecture, is working to share his own and other survivors’ accounts of the quake.

The massive quake on the morning of January 17, 1995 devastated Kobe and the surrounding areas, killing more than 6,400 people.

The park is home to the Nojima Fault Preservation Museum, which features part of the eponymous active geological fault that breached the surface during the quake. The museum was initially visited by crowds of tourists and students on school trips, partly because of its novelty.

About 2.82 million people visited the museum in fiscal 1998, its first year of operation. An earthquake simulation hall, where visitors can experience the shock of real tremors, and a restaurant have also opened in the park, partly in the hope that they would help revitalize the local community.

However, attendance continued to decline steadily over the second year and beyond, until it dropped to just about 123,000 in fiscal year 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic further halved that number to about 67,000 in fiscal 2020, just about a 42nd of the corresponding number for fiscal one.

Since the facility could not hope to attract the returning amusement park visitors, a decline in attendance at certain events was inevitable.

Despite this, the decline of this magnitude has seriously affected the management of the museum.

Komeyama is the president of the memorial park operator, a public-private joint venture partially owned by the Awaji Municipality. The company relies on initiation fees to cover most of its expenses.

The initial 120 staff, including security guards, were reduced to just 10, and ticket prices were also increased.

“We cut spending to get through it,” Komeyama said. “More cuts would hamper our operations.”

ALSO HIT OTHER QUAKE INSTITUTIONS HARD

The Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution (DRI) in Kobe’s Chuo Ward, which has played a central role in educating about disaster management, also saw a sharp drop in attendance in fiscal 2020, down nearly 90 percent to about 64,000 from pre-fiscal numbers pandemic the previous financial year.

The number of lectures given by living witnesses to the Great Hanshin quake also dropped to just about 20 percent of fiscal 2019 numbers.

“This is largely due to the decline in the number of elementary and middle school students visiting in groups,” said a DRI official.

In the current fiscal year, which ends in March, the number of visitors is expected to remain around 80,000, also because the facility was closed for a period of time due to the COVID-19 state of emergency.

The DRI is operated by a Hyogo Prefectural Public Interest Foundation whose loss of entrance income for fiscal year 2020 has been compensated by the prefectural government.

“If things stayed the way they are, we might have a hard time dealing properly with the wear and tear of our equipment and other issues,” the official said, looking ahead.

The Nigawa-Yurino-cho Landslide Museum in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, also saw a nearly 60 percent year-on-year decline in the number of group visitors with reservations in fiscal 2020.

The facility, run by the prefectural government, was built in the eponymous district to share lessons learned from a large-scale landslide triggered by the quake there that claimed the lives of 34 people. The museum was closed from April to May 2020 during the pandemic.

TRUPE HOPES TO STAND UP ON 30TH ANNIVERSARY

Gekidan Jiyujinkai, a theater company that has put on plays to spread reports about the Great Hanshin Quake, has faced a sharp drop in revenue from suspended public performances.

The force, which is based in Kobe’s Tarumi district, has relied on central government subsidies and loans to weather the crisis, but its existence may be threatened, force officials said.

Jiyujinkai was only 1 year old when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, destroying the troupe’s office and rehearsal room in Higashi-Nada District, Kobe.

It adapted “The Great Hanshin Earthquake for Grade 3, Sixth Grade,” a book-sized collection of compositions written by schoolchildren, into a script for a play, which it has since performed at elementary schools, middle schools, and other venues across Japan has December 1995.

The young authors were from Nishinomiya Municipal Hinokuchi Elementary School, which lost five of its students in the quake.

In staging the play some 700 times, the troupe has used various means, such as showing footage from before the play began, so that those born after the quake can better understand the message.

However, Jiyujinkai stopped hosting “Grade 3, Sixth Grade” sometime around 2014.

“As time went by, more and more school officials asked for upbeat plays,” said Moriko Mori, 66, the troupe’s director.

The members of Jiyujinkai have said every year that they hope to perform in “Grade 3, Sixth Grade”.

“I just hope that we can get through the pandemic and perform the play again on the landmark 30th anniversary of the quake,” Mori said, while admitting her troupe’s future remains uncertain.

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