An Israeli visiting the ravaged northeastern coast of Japan on Sunday – exactly
one year after the region was hammered by the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami
– might find it easy to relate to the locals.
Their resilient attitudes,
said IsraAID’s Yotam Polizer, the head of the Israeli relief agency’s team in
the area, bears some similarities to the way Israelis deal with their own
troubles back home.
“Everybody I’ve spoken to here in the past few days
keeps telling me ‘taihen
,’ which literally means ‘awful’ but figuratively means
‘Things are difficult but it will be alright,’” Polizer said via phone from
Sendai, the region’s largest city.
“It’s basically the Japanese
equivalent of ‘yihiye beseder
’” – the Hebrew refrain meaning “It will be
alright” that Israelis are fond of saying when there is nothing else to be
The 29-year-old aid worker from Harashim, a village in the Galilee,
said that over the past few months, the towns and hamlets hugging the rugged
coastline, which are in the process of rapidly rebuilding themselves, have been
preparing ceremonies honoring the victims of the catastrophe.
are holding such public ceremonies illustrates the severity of what happened
here – because unlike us, the Japanese don’t usually hold official mourning
ceremonies like these,” he said.
Disaster struck the northeastern part of
the main Japanese island of Honshu on March 11, 2011, when a quake measuring 9.0
on the Richter scale – the fifth-strongest tremor ever recorded – rattled the
region and sent waves up to 40 meters high crashing onto the coast.
Approximately 15,000 people were killed, up to 300,000 were displaced and a
further 3,000 are still missing and presumed dead, according to data released by
International audiences were gripped by horrific
images of whole cities being swept away in the flood.
crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was badly damaged by the
tsunami and spewed large amounts of radiation into the air and sea, made things
considerably worse. For days, it seemed possible that the plant’s overheated
reactors might fully destruct, a situation that would have put Tokyo – one of
the world’s most densely populated cities – in peril.
technicians eventually brought the situation at the facility under control,
although a 20-kilometer area surrounding the reactors remains deserted because
The Israeli government was one of dozens that sent
direct aid to Japan in its hour of need. At the same time, Jewish and Israeli
relief agencies such as IsraAID, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC) and Zaka responded by raising funds and sending teams of experts
The JDC, which is experienced at responding to international
disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, raised $2.6 million
through the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of Jewish
fundraisers, as well as from direct donors.
“This is a grim day today,”
said Judy Amit, the global director of the JDC’s International Development
Program, on the first anniversary of the earthquake. “It’s a disaster that
speaks to everybody and that hasn’t changed.”
Amit said NGOs like her own
sometimes had an advantage over governments in responding to natural disasters,
because they could show up in isolated areas with relatively little bureaucracy
and immediately start offering assistance to those in need.
flagship project in Japan has been Hibuki, a plush puppet developed in Israel in
the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War to help children with post-trauma
recovery, Amit said. The furry toy has proven to be equally effective in helping
Japanese children afflicted by the tsunami, she added.
Israeli and Jewish
relief groups have been lauded by the Japanese for their help. The Japanese
Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised JDC in an official letter, while the
Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in New York presented IsraAID with a
But some have criticized the outpouring of aid to
Japan in the wake of the disaster. They say the affluent island nation, which
has the world’s third-largest economy and arguably the best disaster-relief
system in the world, did not need overseas donations.
community’s money and efforts, they add, would be put to better use if they were
channeled toward undeveloped parts of the world such as central Africa or
IsraAID founding director Shachar Zehavi rejected such
arguments. He said Israel’s unique experience in dealing with trauma, an unhappy
result of its history of conflicts in the region, was helpful in rehabilitating
people affected by the quake and tsunami.
“In Israel, we have more
experience than most others,” Zehavi said. “There’s a gap between Japan’s
wealth and its knowledge in dealing with such situations, and we saw that often
working in the country.”
Both the JDC and IsraAID said they expect their
work in the country to continue for another three years. “We want to see
our projects through to their conclusion,” said Amit.