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Japan Remembers Deadly Earthquake

January 17, 2002

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TOKYO (AP) _ Thousands gathered in pre-dawn darkness to light candles and say prayers Thursday for more than 6,000 people who died in the Kobe earthquake.

Vigils began at 5:46 a.m. with nearly 2,500 survivors meeting in downtown Kobe to mark the moment a 7.2-magnitude quake ripped the seaside city out of its slumber 7 years ago.

Later, hundreds more participated in a ``survivor walk″ commemorating the 9-mile escape route followed by many refugees, who trudged out of the devastated city with bundles of scavenged belongings.

The absence of top dignitaries this year underlined how wounds have started to heal. It was the first time no royal family members will attend. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has also bowed out, the second year in a row for a premier.

Some 6,425 people died during the Jan. 17, 1995 quake and the tremors and fires that followed. Buildings toppled, expressways collapsed and rail lines were twisted like shoelaces.

Yet, while the disaster shattered confidence in Japan’s ability to build earthquake-safe cities, Kobe, 270 miles west of Tokyo, has made remarkable progress in rebuilding _ thanks largely to a $12.3 billion reconstruction program.

Kobe’s population rebounded to just below its pre-earthquake level of 1.5 million last year. With 250,000 homes destroyed in the earthquake, many residents were forced to leave, and the population plunged to a low of 1.42 million in late 1995.

But economic activity in the once-bustling port city has yet to return to normal.

Roughly one in three survivor households have family members unemployed, according to a recent survey conducted by Kyodo News.

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