For the first time since the deadly earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan, the government on Sunday permitted a foreign medical team to enter the country to treat victims.

Although it is technically illegal for holders of foreign medical licenses to treat patients in Japan, the health ministry issued a notice lifting that restriction, limited to the disaster areas, three days after the quake.

A team of 53 medical aid workers from Israel, including 14 doctors, seven nurses and the interpreters, arrived at Narita airport Sunday evening to go to Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture, where they plan to set up a field clinic and assist local doctors in the initial examination of disaster victims.

According to a Foreign Ministry official, it’s much harder to accept groups of doctors than search and rescue teams because the former require more coordination between governments and local municipalities. The doctors must be self-reliant, and qualified interpreters must be on hand to help the doctors and patients communicate with each other.

Although details were unavailable, the government is considering accepting more foreign medics.

“Locals will be very surprised if a foreign medical team arrived out of the blue,” an official said. “It is the same when a Japanese medical team goes abroad — there needs to be thorough coordination with the government, matching the needs of the people and the offers from abroad.”

Luckily, the Israeli medical team is a perfect match for Minamisanriku.

The Foreign Ministry’s Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau said that Israel had offered medical services early on and Isamu Sato, the mayor of Kurihara, which is next to Minamisanriku, specifically asked for their help.

According to an official, the city has direct connections with Israel, including having received donations when the last relatively big earthquake struck the region in 2008.

“We had just received word from Kurihara around the same time Israel offered medical services and we succeeded in creating a match,” the official said. “It wasn’t like we had left the issue unattended. We had been working closely with Israeli and Kurihara authorities trying to find a way to (send the medical team) without burdening the local government.”

The health ministry sent out a notice to local governments in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures March 14 saying that the “minimum necessary” medical procedures may be taken by foreign doctors given the emergency situation.

The last time such a notice was given was in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which claimed over 6,000 lives.

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