Abstract Before the Kobe earthquake, an anomalous increase in atmospheric Rn concentration was observed. By separating the measured concentration of atmospheric Rn into three components according to the distance from the monitoring station, the variation of Rn exhalation rate can be estimated for the respective area using the daily minimum and maximum concentrations. The mean rate of Rn exhalation gradually increased in an area of 20km around the monitoring station, becoming five times higher than normal in the period between October 1994 and the date of the earthquake. This area had a large co-seismic displacement of up to 30cm, which roughly corresponds to the crustal strain of 10−6-order, and it is considered the main source for the atmospheric Rn prior to the Kobe earthquake. Analyses revealed that the pre-seismic change in the atmospheric Rn concentration exhibited an anomalous pattern which would yield information on the spatial distribution of the mechanical response of the ground.