Aid workers find common ground with Japanese

Israeli team visits ravaged northeastern coast of Japan, 1 year after earthquake and tsuanmi; towns are rapidly rebuilding themselves.

Japan mourns tsunami dead 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Japan mourns tsunami dead 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 said.
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.
“That they 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 Japanese authorities.
International audiences were gripped by horrific images of whole cities being swept away in the flood.
The subsequent 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.
Japanese technicians eventually brought the situation at the facility under control, although a 20-kilometer area surrounding the reactors remains deserted because of contamination.
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 to Japan.
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.
Her agency’s 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 humanitarian award.
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.
The international 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 southern Asia.
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.