In the1960s, a 23-year-old young man from Japan, Isamu Sato, desperately wanted to stay in a kibbutz in Israel. He was fascinated by the idea of communal life under a democratic, not a communist, system of government.
He traveled all the way from Japan to join it. He wanted to enter the Asian and African Institute within the kibbutz. But he could barely speak English, let alone Hebrew. It was politely suggested that he abandon his wild dream and just go home.
But he persisted, saying, “I promise that I will become a politician one day and will promote friendship between Israel and Japan. So please let me stay.”
He eventually got his wish and spent the next six months in Israel, during which he developed lasting affection for the young nation half a world away from Japan.
Fast forward to 2011. Sato was now the mayor of Kurihara City, Miyagi prefecture, in northern Japan. Now a mature man in his late 60s, he had a series of impressive political achievements under his belt – working as a chief of staff to a prominent member of the Japanese Diet, serving as a member of Miyagi prefecture’s legislature, and then as its speaker. He had maintained the friendships with Israeli people he developed over the years. As the mayor of a sleepy and mostly agricultural city with population of 70,000, his life became routine and predictable.
Then on March 11, 2011, a violent earthquake and a huge tsunami hit northeastern Japan. The coastal area of the Miyagi prefecture was devastated and thousands of lives were lost. What happened to Mayor Sato over the next several weeks was something the dreamy 23-year-old living in an Israeli kibbutz could never have imagined.
Within a few days, he received a phone call from Akihiro Monden, a friend who had close ties with Israel through many years of his business and personal friendship with Israeli officials. Monden explained to the mayor that the Israeli government was offering to send an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) medical team to Japan to provide aid for the affected areas, and that Israeli Ambassador to Japan Nissim Ben-Shitrit had asked Monden if any municipal government could accept such a team. Monden thought that Mayor Sato of Kurihara City, whose nearby town of Minamisanriku was almost swept away, was the perfect person to assist the Israelis to carry out their mission.
Mayor Sato was told that the team would arrive as a self-contained unit so that the receiving community would not have to provide food or other necessities. Still, it was not an easy decision for him to make. Japan had just been hit not only by a natural disaster of an unprecedented scale, but the central government of Japan was in disarray because of the dire situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which had also been hit by the tsumani. Mayor Sato knew it would be his full responsibility if anything went wrong while the medical team was in his area.
How would local people in Minamisanriku, who must be in the state of shock after losing so many of their family member, and their property, react to seeing many foreigners in their midst, much less being treated by them? What if another earthquake hit and members of the medical team were hurt? (Indeed, on April 7, a big afterquake, magnitude 7.4 on the Richter scale, hit the area.) The mayor agonized for several hours. Then he remembered the promise that he had made in Israel decades ago that he would promote friendship between Israel and Japan.
So he decided that the time to keep that promise would be now.
Once the decision was made, no time was wasted. On March 21, a preliminary IDF medical delegation of two doctors and an officer arrived in Miyagi prefecture to assess the situation and to prepare for the dispatch of a full-scale medical team. Mayor Sato accompanied them to all the relevant local government agencies such as Miyagi prefecture’s governor’s office and assured officials there that he would be in charge of assisting the medical team so that their contribution to the affected area could be maximized.
The tasks that Mayor Sato had to accomplish in the next few days were daunting. An emergency clinic with six prefab buildings would be built in Minamisanriku, which had lost most of its infrastructure. Electricity to run the emergency clinic needed to be generated and a supply of clean water needed to be secured. Portable toilets needed to be built. Rooms in a hotel in Kurihara city were set aside as a sleeping quarters for the medical team. Gasoline, the scarcest commodity at that time, had to be procured to run the bus carrying the team to the clinic every day.
On March 28, the IDF Home Front Command and Medical Corps Aid delegation arrived in the area. The team comprised a group of nearly 50 members – doctors, nurses, pharmacists and even interpreters who spoke Japanese. The following day, they opened an advanced medical clinic featuring pediatrics, surgical, maternity and gynecological, and otolaryngology wards, an optometry department, a laboratory, a pharmacy and an intensive care unit. Among several medical teams sent by foreign countries, theirs was to be the only one whose doctors were allowed by the Japanese government to treat patients without Japanese medical license.
Mayor Sato’s previous worries vanished when he saw how smoothly the medical team was operating as its members treated the local people.
The first patient was the mayor of Minamisanriku, who had been injured in the tsunami. Mayor Sato was also very pleased to see how warmly and gratefully the medical team was accepted by the community.
They even played a soccer game with local children.
Mayor Sato hardly went home during this time and slept in his office in city hall just to be ready when and if any problem might arise.
After treating more than 200 patients in two weeks, the IDF medical team had finished their mission.
They offered to donate all the equipment they had brought in, such as X-ray machine and portable ultrasound unit. At the farewell reception, Mayor Sato expressed his gratitude: “The clinic you left behind will be a cornerstone in the restoration of our city, which suffered a major disaster. I have no doubt that your important contribution in restoring the area and the generous treatment you provided to our people will be a vital donation and a milestone in the relations between Israel and Japan.”
During the less formal farewell party held that night at the hotel where the team had been staying, Mayor Sato sang, “Jerusalem of Gold,” which was soon joined by all the members of the team. He knew he had fulfilled his promise.
A report compiled by the Japanese Foreign Ministry a few months later stated that the IDF medical team’s smooth operation in Minamisanriku could not have been possible without the assistance from Kurihara City.
Now, four years after the Great East Japan Earthquake which claimed more than 18,000 lives, Mayor Sato reflects on those unforgettable two weeks. He is proud that his personal experience many decades ago, together with the commitment of the IDF medical team to helping those in need, led to a beautiful chapter in the history of friendship between Japan and Israel.The writer is a Japanese writer and the author of Courage to Remember: Interviews on the Holocaust.