March 21, 2011, Updated September 14, 2012

Advanced medical personnel, as well as emergency supplies of gloves, blankets, coats and portable toilets, are quickly being sent to tsunami-hit areas.

Japan tsunami disaster

The Israeli team will assess what needs to be done in the tsunami-devastated region, before sending for more aid from Israel.

On March 20, Israel sent a medical team to earthquake-damaged Japan along with a shipment of crucial emergency items — portable toilets, blankets, winter coats and gloves – bound for an area of devastation near the Fukushima nuclear reactor site.

Two medical doctors and a Homefront Command officer from the Israel Defense Forces were dispatched by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and seen off at Ben-Gurion International Airport by the Japanese ambassador to Israel, Haruhisa Takeuchi. It was a moving and emotional event, says Hagai Shagrir, director of the ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, who coordinated the humanitarian relief.

Normally, Shagrir is focused on Israeli relations with China, but since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, he’s been spearheading Israel’s efforts to help there. “Their ambassador asked us to emphasize that Israel was among, if not the first, country to send a medical team to Japan,” Shagrir tells ISRAEL21c.

Several countries, mainly neighboring ones, sent help after the disaster, but none has sent medical experts, he explains.

Now on the ground in the Japanese city of Kurihara, the three-person team will assess exactly who and what is needed in the area. The moment this information is received, Israel is expected to send a larger medical team and logistics support to Kurihara – which is located on a mountain and therefore was spared when lower surrounding townships and cities were wiped out from the tsunami. Survivors from the nearby town of Sendai have been transferred there.

Setting up shop

“We will probability set up a clinic, depending on medical equipment needs and the lack of medicine,” says Shagrir. “Many of the injured people are there in Kurihara, gathered in public halls, and the medial staff is, of course, not enough. It’s hard for them to cope with the numbers that need medical treatment.”

The people waiting there are “kind of refugees” notes Shagrir, who has been following the news intensively, hour by hour.

Israeli emergency medical team and Japanse Ambassador

Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi, left, and Third Secretary Tomohiko Kurimoto bid farewell to Israel’s emergency medical team heading to Japan.

Also needed in the Sendai and Miyagi region are toilets, given the lack of infrastructure. “We worked on the list with the Japanese very carefully in the last two or three days – and produced this list according to their needs. There are some other countries that sent other provisions, but not with full coordination,” Shagrir emphasizes.

“We wanted to send useful things that are really needed. And we were moved by the fact that Israel was among the first countries the Japanese approached to ask for stuff that is badly needed.”

In total Israel, will send 10,000 coats, 6,000 blankets, and 6,000 pairs of gloves.

Learning how to give to ravaged Japan

Shagrir says that cultural differences caused a slight delay in ascertaining just what the Japanese needed, but within two days a list was compiled. Breaking through these differences required sensitivity and flexibility, he adds, as the Japanese had many questions and wanted to know the exact specifications.

From Israel’s side, the ministry requested that the team not be endangered in any way. The personnel are staying at accommodations a safe distance from the potential radiation that could stream from the nuclear reactor in the Fukushima region.

“When we negotiated with the Japanese, we made it clear that the best agency to provide them with assistance, one which has a lot of experience with medical assistance throughout the world in areas of crisis, is the Homefront Command,” says Shagrir. “They have been to [disaster areas in] Haiti and other places.”

Shagrir expects to have ongoing updates from Israel’s humanitarian mission to Japan over the coming days.

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