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When the Tohoku region was hit by a massive earthquake that triggered deadly tsunami waves in March 2011, volunteers from home and abroad offered various forms of support, from medical supplies to rescue teams.

A lesser-known effort in the aftermath of the disaster was carried out by a team of around 60 doctors from Israel, who were dispatched to the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. The operation was realized in large part thanks to Isamu Sato — then the mayor of Kurihara, also in Miyagi — who coordinated with the Israeli Embassy in Japan, the central government and local municipalities.

Former Kurihara Mayor Isamu Sato coordinated the dispatch of Israeli doctors to Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake-triggered tsunami. | KAHOKU SHIMPO
Former Kurihara Mayor Isamu Sato coordinated the dispatch of Israeli doctors to Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake-triggered tsunami. | KAHOKU SHIMPO

On March 20, 2011, Sato was approached by the Israeli ambassador to Japan about the possibility of dispatching an Israeli medical team to Minamisanriku, which was flattened by the tsunami. A Foreign Ministry official at the ministry’s Middle Eastern division also called Sato for advice.

Sato studied in Israel when he was in his 20s, living in a kibbutz farming community, and later worked at a research institute affiliated with the Israeli government. The envoy’s approach reminded him of the kindness he had received in his younger days.

Sato had gone to Minamisanriku the day before, aware of the fact that most of the medical supplies at a public hospital had been swept away by the tsunami and that the town was in need of medical support.

When he called other relevant ministries, Sato learned the central government had decided to accept Israel’s team of doctors as long as the Miyagi Prefectural Government approved of the plan.

But even though Minamisanriku Mayor Jin Sato also wanted medical aid for the town, the Miyagi government was hesitant, as it worried that Tohoku University doctors dispatched to the affected area may may have difficulty coordinating with foreign doctors.

Time was of the essence, so on March 21 Sato went to the Miyagi government’s office to persuade officials. At around midnight, Miyagi Prefecture gave the green light on condition that the Israeli doctors follow the instructions of their Japanese counterparts.

On March 29, the doctors arrived in Minamisanriku for a two-week mission, during which they stayed in Kurihara.

Though hesitant at first, patients in Minamisanriku gradually started to go see the doctors. The doctors also treated Jin Sato, the Minamisanriku mayor, and helped transport a pregnant mother to a Kurihara hospital.

When the town asked them for X-ray machines and blood test equipment, it was immediately taken care of. With the new medical equipment, the local public hospital started treating patients.

“I was astonished by their philanthropic mindset,” Sato said.

On the night before their departure, Sato thanked them for their work and sang “Jerusalem of Gold,” a popular song in Israel, with them.

“I felt that I was able to repay my gratitude after 40 years,” he said.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published July 26.

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