SENDAI, Japan — Tami Gavron takes one look at the classroom at Sendai University, where dozens of shiny brown desks are arranged, primary-school style, in strict rows throughout the lecture hall, and immediately begins rearranging the furniture.

With the help of a team of volunteers, she repositions a few dozen desks to fashion one massive central table, and then sets about setting up craft equipment — paints, tissue paper, glue, beads and feathers — at another table alongside the room’s wide windows.

Outside, the campus’s cherry blossoms are in wild, exuberant bloom. But the mood inside is somber when the students for this day’s trauma seminar, all of them survivors of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck this region just over three years ago, arrive. We are in the heart of northern Japan’s Tohoku prefecture, where there is no one who didn’t lose something, be it a home, a loved one, or that ever-crucial sense of security, on the day of those biblical-level upheavals and floods. Everyone in this classroom is holding on tight to something invisible and heavy, and the Japanese participants look positively frightened at the prospect of having their feelings finally exposed.

Gavron, a Haifa-based art therapist, is in Japan for her second visit since the tsunami to train and guide this region’s residents in the practice of nonverbal therapy. On her first trip, she spent time in Fukushima and Yamamoto, encouraging shell-shocked parents and children to let their hands draw the emotions that their voices couldn’t yet articulate.

Television footage from March 11, 2011 shows the tsunami swallowing homes in Sendai. (photo credit: AP Photo/NHK TV)

Television footage from March 11, 2011, shows the tsunami swallowing homes in Sendai. (photo credit: AP/NHK TV)

Japan, a nation renowned for its decorum, humility and delicacy of both culture and cuisine, is ill-acquainted with talk therapy, and terms like post-trauma, acute stress disorder, and survivor’s guilt have yet to enter the lexicon. But even without the labels to properly identify these conditions, the men and women of Tohoku are wearing their symptoms. At Fuji kindergarten in Yamamoto, where teachers plucked dozens of floundering three- and four-year-olds out of the tsunami’s black waves and dragged them to safety atop a marooned school bus, headmaster Noboku Suzuki thinks not of the 30 children she did save, but her guilt over the eight who drowned. In the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, children are playing funeral games with dolls that they name after their lost friends. And up and down the coastal slopes of this country, the suicide rate among middle-aged men, speared by the double edges of horrific flashbacks and stagnating economies, is skyrocketing.

“Expressing feelings is not part of the culture here, so they don’t have the support,” says Gavron, who feels Japan’s rich history of art and aesthetics has created an ideal climate for nonverbal therapy. “Clinical psychologists and verbal health professionals aren’t making a lot of progress here, but art therapy is like a channel. It uses art, which is their own language.”

Tami Gavron leads a seminar, center, with Kensho Tambara, left, and Keiko Fukumoto, right, translating. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Tami Gavron (center) leads a seminar with Kensho Tambara (left) and Keiko Fukumoto (right), translating. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Gavron is a volunteer for IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian NGO that has been operating in Japan since four days after the March 11, 2011, tsunami. In the three years since, the organization — which has standing missions across the world and has provided humanitarian crisis care in 22 countries — has set up a permanent office in Sendai, with full-time Japanese staff, and created a branching Japanese organization, the Japanese IsraAID Support Program (JISP). IsraAID pays Gavron’s expenses to get her from Haifa to Tohoku, but her time, like that of dozens of other therapists operating here and across Asia, is donated.

The 14 students learning from Gavron today range from undergraduates to senior citizens, all of them interested in social work and psychology. One young woman lost her home in the tsunami. Another older man lost his brother. But none of them, they say, are here for themselves. They are here because they want to help their communities and don’t know how.

Over the course of four hours, Gavron gives a short lecture on the bare bones of trauma theory, and then instructs each student to pick a box from a pile of shoeboxes and empty chocolate containers, and decorate it using the art materials available. The outside of the box is public, she tells them, while the inside is more private. Later, as the students describe their creations — doused in tissue paper tufts, streaked with puffy paint or lined with neon cherry blossom figurines — the parallel to the inner and outer selves, and private versus public pain, will be undeniable.

A student in the seminar works on his project. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

A student in the seminar works on his project. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Gavron gives her instructions in English, with translations provided by Keiko Fukumoto, a sweet-faced native of Osaka who now serves as JISP’s translator, chief administrator and all-around logistics coordinator, as well as the project director of their sister project, Healing Japan. Two days earlier, Fukumoto was in Tokyo with Yotam Polizer, IsraAID’s Asia regional director, as he stumped for funding and potential partnerships with local Japanese organizations like the Association for Aid and Relief and the Tokyo Japan Latter Day Saints Mormon Church.

Also offering translation help is Kensho Tambara, a 22-year-old Harvard student with Japanese parents and an Australian upbringing who is vital to another JISP project, Voices of Tohoku, which is slowly creating a web of video testimonies that tsunami survivors can pass on to the next generation of their communities.

“A lot of people come to us and say, ‘Why Japan?’” Tambara says of his work with IsraAID. “Japan is more developed than Israel, and it’s a good question. But Israel has experience and skills [in trauma care]. Psychosocial support is much more advanced there than in Japan, and bringing that to Japan where it’s needed is very important.”

Tambara is in Japan for a year during a break while earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology. He became familiar with Israel, he says, through a few Israeli-American friends he met at Harvard. This summer, he plans to visit Israel for the first time.

Yotam Polizer speaks to students from Tohoku at the Tokyo Hilton's summer training program. (photo credit: courtesy IsraAid)

Yotam Polizer speaks to students from Tohoku at the Tokyo Hilton’s summer training program. (photo credit: Courtesy of IsraAID)

“IsraAID is definitely allowing a lot of Japanese people to understand Israel more,” he says. “And if IsraAID can be a bridge between Israel and Japan, one that allows Japanese people to become more interested in Israel and support what’s there, well, that’s good too.”

Polizer, 31, who previously served as IsraAID’s Japan project manager and speaks fluent Japanese, also likes to use the word “bridge” to describe IsraAID’s activities. There are countless Jewish philanthropic and humanitarian organizations that pitched in to help Japan in those terrible, waterlogged days following the tsunami, some of them donating staggering amounts of money and doing heaps of good. Polizer insists that IsraAID is different, however, pointing to its philosophy of looking for local partners that can be part of a team — proverbially teaching fishing rather than serving food or medicine — instead of simply pumping for funds.

One of those partners is the Hilton Tokyo in Tokyo’s florescent Shinjuku district, where staffers walking along the hushed, plush corridors were continually asking themselves how they could help the residents of far-away Tohoku in the days following the disaster. Their answer came through IsraAID, which served as a connector between five-star hotel’s resources and the shell-shocked teens of north Japan.

A therapy circle at an IsraAid session. (photo credit: courtesy IsraAid)

A therapy circle at an IsraAID session (photo credit: Courtesy of IsraAID)

“At Hilton, we do not have a connection to the Tohoku area,” says Norie Fukuoka, the hotel’s assistant human resources manager. The staff had an idea to reshape their employee training program as an enrichment course for northern Japanese teens seeking hotel management training, but they needed someone to connect the dots for them. Polizer and his team did just that.

“It was not only for the students,” says Keita Takagi, another Hilton staffer involved in the program who is currently in training to become a manager of the 800-room property. “We all wanted to do something for Tohoku even if we couldn’t go out there. And now… we have experience and knowledge in how to offer support.”

Hilton Tokyo’s program, which trains Tohoku teens in hospitality and cooking during their summer and winter school breaks, earned it a Best Community Program Award from Hilton Worldwide. It also led to firm friendships between Polizer and Futumoko and the staff on the ground, who insist that should another disaster strike Japan in the near future, they would again ask IsraAID to serve as connectors.

Gavron leads her session. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

Gavron leads her session. (photo credit: Debra Kamin/Times of Israel)

What matters in the short term to Polizer and his team, however, is just that the Japanese are learning to talk about what they experienced.

“Art therapy is really developed in Israel. There are seven or eight MA programs in expressive therapy in one small country,” says Polizer. “In Japan there isn’t a single one, but it really fits the Japanese culture… They won’t come to counseling but through Japanese art, through culture and tradition, and even through karaoke, they are learning to express themselves.”