Japanese tour guide Shigeru Sakakibara
Tour guide Shigeru Sakakibara waiting at Ben Gurion Airport this week to welcome visitors. Photo by Nir Keidar
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The earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northeastern Japan three weeks ago shook the lives of several expatriates living in Israel. Being so distant from their families some of them spent days anxiously learning the fate of their loved ones while displaying stoicism to the outside world.

Eliya Tsuchida, who moved to Israel 14 years ago, immediately e-mailed his parents in Tokyo and his sister, who lives in the South of the country, to inquire about their wellbeing after hearing about the disaster. Located a safe distance from the tsunami waves that followed the quake and devastated the Tohoku region, they told him they were fine - but then he remembered that his cousin Noriko and her husband lived in Sendai, a city close to the quake’s epicenter.

“For several days we weren’t able to get in touch with them,” Tsuchida, a 36-year-old Ramat Gan resident, told Anglo File this week. “After four days, friends of my sister found them in a reception center in some school, where all those affected by the destruction gathered.” The tsunami, which killed more than 11,000 people, with more than 16,000 still missing, spared their lives but not their belongings, he added. “I don’t really know what the situation is right now but apparently they lost their house.”

Shigeru Sakakibara, a Tokyo-born tour guide who moved to Jerusalem some 40 years ago, said he was in the middle of talking to a group of tourists when his wife called to inform him about the tsunami. “I tried to call my family but I didn’t get them on the phone,” the 68-year-old said, adding that his sister lives in Sendai. “The next day I tried again, but again nothing, I didn’t reach them. Three days later I got in contact with the husband of my sister in Japan − they are okay.”

Sakakibara doesn’t know if they lost their house. “I just wanted to know they’re safe or not, I didn’t ask them anything else,” he said.

Japan is used to earthquakes and tsunamis, Sakakibara said. “Even if I worry a lot, I cannot do anything. I pray that everything will be okay, what else can I do? I’m calm. I’m not worried, I’m very optimistic.”

Some 820 Japanese currently live in Israel, Tomoaki Shimane, first secretary at the Japanese embassy, told Anglo File this week, adding that there was no way of knowing how many of them returned to Japan after the earthquake.

Eliya Tsuchida, who heads an organization of Japanese in Israel, said his Israeli-born wife suggested his sister come to Israel because of the dangerous radioactivity leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. But his sister doesn’t want to leave, Tsuchida said.

“When I offered her to come, she said that there are people who try to repair the nuclear reactor. They are sacrificing their lives and we cannot just escape. We have to join hands and escaping will not bring us anything.”

Most locally based Japanese did not have to worry about close relatives, as their families overwhelmingly live in the Tokyo and Osaka regions, said Ben-Ami Shillony, the former head of the East-Asian studies department at Hebrew University and an expert of Japanese-Jewish relations.

Kikue Eppstein, who has a brother, a sister and a 37-year-old son living in the greater Tokyo area, says she has spoken with her loved ones almost every day since the natural disaster struck. They tell Eppstein, who moved to Israel in 1963 and resides in Jerusalem, that the public transportation system doesn’t work as effectively as usual and the state is trying to save electricity, but daily life goes on more or less as usual.

Eppstein was seven years old when atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I visited Hiroshima later, but at the time we had no idea about the bomb,” she said. She vividly remembers, however, how her father used to talk about surviving the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 people. “I know something about natural disasters. But not of something of such a scale as we have now.”

Carrying both cultures

All Japanese living in Israel interviewed for this story were calm and composed when they spoke about the catastrophe that befell their home country. But according to Japan expert Shillony, local Japanese exhibit both Far Eastern stoicism and Middle Eastern excitement.

“The Japanese community carries both cultures and ways of behavior. What they share with the Israelis is of course a great emotional response and confusion about what is happening in Japan,” Shillony told Anglo File. “But on the other hand they are less agitated than Israelis would be in a similar position. They are more stoic about it, in the way the Japanese in Japan are more stoic about it.”