South African rescue team members in the aftermath of the earthquake disaster that hit eastern Japan in 2011. It was the first rescue mission from Africa to Japan. File photo
Japan Day 2019 - Rugby Edition - this Saturday at the Oude Libertas Slow Market features the biggest line-up ever of Japanese cultural experiences. Cultural exchange promotes mutual understanding and friendship.

Human-to-human connection based on trust is fundamental to all spheres of relations between two nations. However, human relations are not always forged under joyful circumstances, but sometimes in times of adversity.

Today marks eight years since the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami hit eastern Japan where 18432 people lost their lives or went missing.

Thanks to support from all over the world, Japan has now recovered and is ready to welcome nations from around the world to the Rugby World Cup, G20 Summit and TICAD 7 Summit, as well as the enthronement of the new emperor. We are pleased to celebrate the resilience of humanity and the dawn of a new era in Japan.

Five days after the 3.11 disaster, 45 South African rescue team members departed South Africa with a chartered plane. It was the first rescue mission ever from Africa to Japan.

Local police and residents of Miyagi were deeply impressed by the dedicated support by the team.

We would never forget that when our children and grandparents were at the edge of life and death, it was South Africans who risked their lives and lent a hand of support. Many of them were from the Western Cape.

It is in extreme situations where humanity shines. When an apartment in Natori city was about to collapse and small tremors continued triggering warning sirens, the South Africa team, including Dr Pankil Patel, were asked by a young woman for help.

She asked to recover her kimono from her apartment. The team could have said no, but the members crawled into the collapsing building and somehow recovered her kimono, leaving her overcome with joy and appreciation.

The team reflect that even when they cannot save lives, rescue work can give hope, as with the recovered kimono, probably inherited from her grandma for her future wedding, providing a ray of hope in her life.

One South African team member said: “Japan assisted Africa for over 60 years with development. Now, with Japan facing a massive challenge which seemed impossible to overcome, we thought it is our turn to lend a hand.” The comment was reported widely in Japan and touched many.

Director of local police Gaku Igarashi said: “Policemen were at the peak of exhaustion, physically and mentally, having lost own colleagues, and yet facing the heavy mission of searching residents, but tough South Africans joined us from early until late with serious equipment they brought in.” Igarashi sewed the South African flag on his police cap and placed team SA as the centre of the daily rescue plan.

Igarashi’s message to the team reads: “More than anything, I want to say ‘thank you’ to your family who allowed their loved ones for taking part in their mission in Japan.” Igarashi claims he is a proud member of the “Miyagi Unit” of the South African rescue team.

The team, before their departure, presented a miniature 2010 Fifa World Cup “Jabulani” soccer ball to the mayor of Iwanuma City, with a hand-written message, “Never give up”.

Today, many of the team members continue to work in rescue activities. The team leader, Colin Deiner, is the Chief Director of Disaster Management and Fire/Rescue Services in the Western Cape, running around daily to save Cape Town from mountain fires and other disasters. The logistical head, Ian Scher, commands an NGO, Rescue South Africa, which during the past eight years has trained South African rescue workers and about 60 rescue workers from Southern Africa to achieve urban search and rescue diplomas.

The Great East Japan Earthquake, however traumatic it was, brought us a sustained friendship and opportunity to inspire the goodwill of South Africans.

Kitagawa Yasuhisa, head of the political division of the Embassy, who accompanied the South African rescue team, embraces the aspirations of the team and continues further collaborations with South Africa to uplift the capability and resilience of Africa.

While natural disasters strike only for a few hours or days, the impact remains imprinted in the memories of the affected for a lifetime.

This year, Tulbagh commemorates the 50th anniversary of its earthquake, the most destructive quake in the history of South Africa.

Japan is a disaster-prone country. We continue to work closely with South Africa, the department of Co- operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, provincial governments and NGOs to strengthen the country’s resilience.

Above all, this day strengthens our belief in humanity and leaves us grateful for all the assistance we have received from South Africa and all the other nations of the world.

Naito is Consul of Japan in Cape Town