Photo/IllutrationMembers of Shinsai wo Yomitsunagu Kai Kobe recite survivor recollections to audiences in Kobe's Chuo Ward in January 2015. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A survivor of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Jan. 17, 1995, wept while eating "onigiri" rice balls at an evacuation center. Another, who lived in a ninth-floor apartment and tried to lug a water tank up the stairs, gave up because it was too heavy.

These and other eyewitness accounts of the megaquake fill the shelves of the records room of Shinsai wo Yomitsunagu Kai Kobe, a Kobe-based group of volunteers who try to keep memories of the disaster alive by reciting survivors' recollections to audiences.

"The further we proceed on our road to recovery, the fuzzier our memories become, even for us survivors," said Miyuki Shimomura, 68, the group's director.

With her current team of 23 volunteers, Shimomura has been focusing on educating younger generations by visiting elementary and junior high schools. A cumulative total of 60,000 people have listened to the stories to date.

The writer of "Hideto yo" (Oh Hideto) lost his son of the same name in the quake, but was unable to put his thoughts down on paper until 10 years later.

After the death of his graduate student son, the father became incapable of observing any New Year's celebrations, such as writing New Year's greeting cards and visiting shrines and temples at the start of the new year, and got into the habit of counting the number of days since his son's demise--"3,288, 3,289, 3,290, 3,291."

"Kittan, Ja Matana" (See ya, Kittan) was written by a junior high school student as a letter of sorts to his best buddy, Kittan.

"I was happy I could make it to your funeral," it goes. "Your face was very beautiful." Even though one boy lived and the other died, their friendship endured, unchanged. "You are living not only in my heart but also in my whole body, Kittan."

"I've never had any difficulty looking for survivors' accounts to recite," Shimomura said. "Given the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe, there was obviously no one who wasn't interested in recording their experiences and telling people about them."

Initially, her team of volunteers thought only of reading stories to their young audiences. But after a while, Shimomura decided to change her approach. Instead of making the kids just listen, "I let the kids recite the stories themselves," she explained. "That way, the stories will have longer lives."

Jan. 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

As someone who was not there at the time, it strikes me, with surprise, how quickly the last quarter-century has passed.

But reading the accounts Shimomura kindly loaned me, I was immediately transported through space and time to that day.

--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.