First Person: Out of disaster, small comforts

As the ZAKA rescue team collaborated with the Iranian Red Crescent, Israelis created a small "foundation" for Japanese recovery.

Zaka, Iranians in Japan 311 (photo credit: ZAKA)
Zaka, Iranians in Japan 311
(photo credit: ZAKA)
TOKYO – The world-renowned ZAKA rescue team found itself collaborating with the Iranians. Members of the Israeli army’s medical unit were found to speak flawless Japanese, with a touch of a Kobe accent. So biblical in scale was the disaster that hit Japan last month that it brought about some of the unlikeliest after-effects.
First, the Iranians.
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ZAKA, led by its Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, entered the tsunami- devastated port city of Kamaishi in late March. It was when the team was sent to help with food distribution to the surviving victims that Meshi-Zahav noticed something unexpected: an Iranian flag flying at the food station. Thousands of miles away from home, they had happened upon a four-man group sent by the Iranian Red Crescent, delivering 50,000 cans of tuna and beans.
“After the initial embarrassment on both sides,” ZAKA’s website quoted Meshi-Zahav saying, “we all put our political views to the side in order to carry out our shared humanitarian mission.”
A Japanese nongovernmental organization has for years annually invited Israeli and Palestinian children to visit – children who have lost loved ones, in one way or another, to the conflict. Hostilities mellow; sympathies grow. Japan is so far away and so different from the Middle East, that it can sometimes have a constructive effect. So, this time, Japan created a chance encounter for Israelis with the Iranians.
Even if all that they shared was embarrassment, that too can create a long-lasting memory.
Now to the Kobe-accented Israelis.
I had a “wow” moment when I was watching a late night news show on local TV. It was about the medical unit the Israeli army had sent to Minami Sanriku, one of the most devastated seashore towns.
Among the 60-strong team of doctors and nurses, two young girls in uniform playing with local children caught the camera’s attention.
As the TV team drew closer to them, we heard that they were speaking our language, with a perfect western Japanese accent.
How so? They two are sisters, Lihi and Noy. Their father is Japanese, their mother Israeli. They were born and grew up near Kobe. In fact, on the day that Lihi turned four, January 17, 1995, a huge quake hit the city (killing more than 6,000 people).
“It was my birthday. I remember Mom panicking,” Lihi recalled.
“And I feel like it is destiny for the two of us, having grown up in Japan, to be here working as Hebrew-Japanese translators for the Israeli army, now, when Japan has been so devastated and when the IDF sent its medical unit overseas for the first time ever.”
At the farewell ceremony for the Israelis last week, the town’s mayor could hardly keep his eyes dry. The town had had a hospital. But from the ground to the third floor, everything had gone. Only those who had managed to remain on the roof had survived.
The mayor himself was nearly drowned in the tsunami. Clinging to an antenna tower that just happened to be there, he survived on the roof of city hall, as multiple tsunami waves washed over him.
He praised Israel and the army team for leaving behind a working medical facility: “This facility, the X-ray machine and everything the Israelis are so benevolent as to leave behind, will constitute the foundation upon which Minami Sanriku will rebuild its medical services,” he promised.
That “foundation” also features a dozen or so drawings, pinned up on the walls of the pediatrics facility.
These are the drawings done by local kids. Without the two half-Japanese sisters, without their presence here in the army’s team, those pictures would not have been drawn.
Sometimes, the cruelest hardships create some of the happiest coincidences.
The writer, an academic at Keio University, is a former spokesman at Japan’s Foreign Ministry.