Photo/IllutrationCollapsed homes and damaged rail lines in Kobe's Higashi-Nada Ward on Jan. 17, 1995 (Kazuyoshi Sako)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Over a three-day period in 1995, the resources of The Asahi Shimbun were stretched to near-breaking point as reporters and photographers descended on the city of Kobe to cover the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck early in the morning of Jan. 17, and eventually claimed 6,434 lives.

Of the 18,000 or so images taken of the devastation, about 8,200 negatives have been digitalized and stored in The Asahi Shimbun's database.

The magnitude-7.3 temblor struck at 5:46 a.m., and the first photos, taken shortly after 6 a.m., were of collapsed homes and fires that had begun to spread across the city. Over the next three days, reporters from not only the Kobe and Hanshin bureaus, but also from bureaus across the country, converged on Hyogo Prefecture in central Japan.

The images represent a powerful record of the extensive damage to the city's social infrastructure, such as collapsed expressways and wrecked railway lines.

Due to the huge number of casualties, there were numerous photos of joint funerals. In all the misery, pockets of hope emerged as mothers welcomed their newborn into the world.

On Jan. 16, The Asahi Shimbun Digital website will open a photo gallery of 282 photos taken over the first 63 hours at a special page that can be accessed at (


Although Tadashi Goto, 75, retired years ago from the Asahi, he was assigned to the Kobe bureau as a photographer when the earthquake struck. He lived on the eighth floor of a condominium complex constructed on man-made Rokko Island.

He recalled that his TV set toppled over and dishes crashed out of a cupboard that came tumbling down. As soon as Goto confirmed his family members were unhurt, he rushed to the bureau in his car.

Along the way he noticed the support columns for the overhead Hanshin Expressway had buckled to expose the reinforcing steel bars. A number of buildings had also collapsed.

There were few cars or pedestrians on the streets.

When he reached the bureau, he learned that dozens of patients were trapped at the Kobe West Hospital in Nagata Ward. One photo he took showed nurses and other hospital staff using futon bedding to ferry patients from the narrow space that remained after the ceiling on the fifth floor collapsed.

He spent the first few nights at the bureau and used a motorcycle to get around. Although Goto calmly went about creating a visual record of the destruction, he found he was not immune to the emotional toll that the disaster would have on him.

That moment came during a visit to an elementary school to learn how the children were coping. When he tried to snap a photo of them singing as a group, Goto was unable to press the shutter because the finder had become clouded over from tears streaming down his cheeks.


Another photographer, Satoshi Arai, sometimes felt torn between doing his job and helping those he encountered screaming for help.

Arai, now 55, was still a young photographer based at the Osaka Head Office when the earthquake struck. At that time, he lived in a condominium in Ashiya, situated between Osaka and Kobe. An older photographer lived on a higher floor and the two of them headed to the scene of a fire in the south of the city.

Shortly after 6 a.m., Arai took a photo of orange flames rising from a residential district while local residents huddled in blankets and watched the blaze.

He helped rescue people trapped in the debris of their collapsed homes. Before he realized what he was doing, Arai helped pull an elderly man from his ruined home. Arai and the older photographer took turns, with one helping victims while the other took photos and asked questions.

Arai found an elderly woman trapped up to her neck in the walls and columns of what had been her home. With the fire moving in the woman’s direction, Arai and other passersby frantically removed mounds of debris to rescue the woman. Later, Arai found all his 10 fingers were bloody.

Arai would continue to help victims in the coming days and only took photos after an individual had been saved. That led to discussion within the company about professional ethics while covering a major story.

While Arai admitted he felt he did not always live up to being a professional photographer, he also never forgot how happy he felt whenever he helped someone in distress.

In the ensuing two years, Arai had been assigned to the Kobe area and continued to take photos of the areas affected by the earthquake.

(This article was written by Tatsuya Chikusa and Hiroki Koike.)