In the days since the huge earthquake struck Japan, prompting a devastating tsunami and possible nuclear meltdown, many people have stopped Teruto Ishiida on the street to ask him where he’s from.
“In Israel, people are friendly; they don’t hesitate to ask me if I’m Japanese or Chinese or Korean, and when I say Japanese they start to worry,” Ishiida, a student at Hebrew University, said on Tuesday.
“They ask me if my family’s okay and if I’m in contact with them, and when I tell them about my friends in Sendei [one of the hardest hit areas, where Ishiida hasn’t been able to make contact with his friends], they say, ‘I will pray for you and your family and friends that it will be a better situation.’” Ishiida, a second-year bachelor’s degree student in archeology and religious studies, is a native of Kyoto, which is in central Japan and 600 km. southwest from the intensely damaged areas. He said that immediately after the earthquake struck on Friday, he was in touch with his parents , who reported that they were safe, though still feeling the powerful aftershocks shaking the region.
Soon afterwards he was able to make contact with his grandparents in Tokyo, but he still has no idea about his friends living in north Japan, who may be among the estimated 12,000 killed in the country’s worst disaster since World War II.
Being 10,000 km. away from home during a disaster on this scale is difficult, especially because of the uncertainty of his friends’ situations. But 21- year-old Ishiida adds that perhaps his role in the disaster is to act as a bridge between Israel and Japan, to let the Japanese know that the people in Israel are also thinking and worrying about the tens of thousands of victims.
Along with students in the East Asia Studies faculty at Hebrew University, Ishiida is working to collect blankets and old clothes to send to Japan, as well as compiling a notebook full of encouraging messages from Israelis to Japanese citizens hit hard by the quake.
“Israelis don’t know that much about Japan, they think we can manage by ourselves, but we need help from abroad,” he said.
Ishiida speaks fluent Hebrew and has lived in Jerusalem for three years, giving him a window into the Israeli mentality and the way Israelis deal with tragedies.
“We in Japan were so far from death because we hadn’t had a war in 60 years,” said Ishiida. “Then suddenly we feel death so closely, like my friends in Sendei, I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. I think Israelis can feel more sympathetic than people from other countries.”
“If I say there’s a big chance [my friends died], Israelis understand
this, because they know a soldier who has died or children who have died
[in terror attacks] more than England or the US because of the
difficult politics here,” Ishiida added.
While Israel is known to be notoriously underprepared for a major
earthquake, Japan is famous for their earthquake planning. Every year,
there is a nationwide “Disaster Preparedness Day” in Japanese schools,
where children practice earthquake drills, including how to evacuate a
building in an orderly fashion and how to take cover in the initial
moments of the quake.
Students also learn the history of the world’s largest earthquakes, both
to honor the victims and to understand what lessons can be learned from
“People in Israel are usually thinking of tragedy that comes from
people, like wars and terrorist attacks, but I hope that Israel will
understand also the possibility of a natural disaster,” Ishiida said.
Ishiida, who plans to return home after finishing his studies in two years, also visits home during the summers.
This year, he admitted, he’s terrified of what he’ll find on his return.
While his hometown of Kyoto was mostly spared from damage, he still
doesn’t know if he’ll be visiting with friends or visiting their graves.
Still, he said, the country is working on recovering as quickly as possible.
“After World War II almost everything was destroyed, and we had to build
Tokyo from zero,” Ishiida said. But within 20 years, Tokyo was one of
the biggest cities in the world, and the Japanese economy was one of the
largest, he added.
Some of Ishiida’s friends at home criticized the non-essential shops
that were reopening across Japan on Monday, arguing that it was a time
for mourning, not shopping.
“We have to cry, but also we have to continue on our way,” he said. “It’s difficult to keep the balance between the two sides.”