Photo/IllutrationTsubasa Nakamura tells his story at Meishin elementary school, Kobe, on Jan. 17. (Shiro Nishihata)

Kobe resident Tsubasa Nakamura was born the day the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Hyogo Prefecture on Jan. 17, 1995, exactly 23 years ago.

Dubbed "the miracle baby born in the city of rubble," Nakamura grew up with television cameras following him. When he started elementary school, a pro baseball team invited him to throw the first pitch in the season's opening game.

"My 'fame' was a burden during puberty," Nakamura recalled. "I only happened to have been born on the day thousands of people died. I hadn't done anything to earn all that attention. I eventually stopped disclosing my birthdate."

But his feelings changed when he took courses in disaster preparedness education at university. He volunteered as a relief worker in the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and came in direct contact with survivors living in temporary housing.

It was only then that Nakamura finally asked his parents about the day he was born, and the following is what he learned.

When the ground heaved, his father threw himself over his wife to protect her.

They left their home when they saw flames starting to flicker. His mother's waters broke at an elementary school where evacuees were taking shelter. A woman, a total stranger, made her car available for Nakamura's mother to rest in. The road to the hospital was severely congested, and his father asked a police officer to lead the car along the hard shoulder.

It took four hours to reach the hospital, but there was no power. Nakamura was born in the glow of a torch held by his father. But the family soon left the hospital, fearing the building might not hold up. Nakamura did not get his first bath until midnight.

Hearing all this made Nakamura realize that his survival was indeed a miracle.

I listened to a talk he gave last week at an elementary school in Kobe. This was his debut as a member of "Kataribe Kobe 1995," a group of survivors recounting their stories to the public.

Together with about 250 pupils, I stared at photographs of black smoke billowing from the devastated city.

Born on the borderline between the "before" and "after" of a major catastrophe, Nakamura has no recollection of the jolts, but the story he told was as vivid and personal as that of any survivor.

Listening to him, I prayed that some members of the audience would be inspired to become next-generation storytellers and keep memories of the Great Hanshin Earthquake alive for posterity.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 17

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.