Japanese Dancer Hopes for Return of Peace in Israel

Courtesy of Mami Shimazaki
Mami Shimazaki, bottom left, and members of her dance class are seen in Tel Aviv in April.

A Japanese dancer has recently returned from Israel to her home country due to fears over her personal safety following the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mami Shimazaki, 48, said it was the first time for her to want to return to Japan after settling in the Middle East country in 1997 to pursue a career as a professional dancer.

Shimazaki decided to temporarily go to Japan amid the intensifying fighting. Now, she offers online lessons on dancing and the Japanese language to children in Israel — about 9,000 kilometers from Japan — in hopes that peace will return to her adopted homeland as soon as possible.

Deep concerns

Shimazaki was at a friend’s house in northern Israel when the Islamist militant group Hamas attacked the country on Oct. 7. TV news programs showed people fleeing from gun-wielding Hamas fighters.

Shimazaki’s friend’s house sits about 15 kilometers from Israel’s border with Lebanon. Local reports said Hezbollah — a Shia Muslim organization with close ties to Hamas — had entered the country; residents received smartphone notices advising them to lock their doors, shut their windows and turn off all lights.

“I’ve experienced air-raid sirens going off on multiple occasions, but the sense of urgency this time around was completely different,” Shimazaki said.

Another friend, whose parents live in southern Israel, told Shimazaki that their mother had gone missing following the Hamas attacks. Shimazaki recalled visiting the family’s house and enjoying home-cooked meals around four years ago.

Shimazaki has a 20-year-old daughter with her Israeli former husband. The daughter serves as a guard at a military facility in the country.

Shimazaki did not know what to do following the Hamas attack and felt in fear of her life, prompting her to take a commercial flight from Tel Aviv in central Israel. She landed in Japan on Oct. 15.

After returning home, she learned that her friend’s mother had been killed.

1,000-plus students

Shimazaki began taking ballet lessons at the age of 3 and moved to France at 16. After attending a ballet school in Monaco, she studied at an educational facility established by world-acclaimed choreographer Maurice Bejart in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Her life changed after attending a performance by the Batsheva Dance Company, a noted Israeli contemporary dance company that was touring Europe at the time.

“I was captivated by the dancers’ expressive power, which flowed freely and was unbound by genre,” she said.

At the time, Shimazaki was regularly appearing on Italian and German stages, but she opted to travel to Israel and entreat the company to admit her as a member. Her dream came true the following year.

After just two years with the troupe, she was among the top dancers and began touring the world. After retiring as a dancer at age 34, she began a career as a choreographer and actor. She is frequently asked to give lessons on dancing and Japanese culture.

Shimazaki says she has had more than 1,000 students, including both Jewish and Palestinian children. “In their own way, kids are aware of certain differences, but they still respect each other,” Shimazaki said. “I’ve never seen them arguing with each other.”

Online lessons

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Mami Shimazaki speaks with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Tokyo on Nov. 6.

“How’s everyone doing?” Shimazaki asked Nov. 6, addressing online Japanese-language students in Hebrew from a Tokyo conference room.

Shimazaki says youngsters often become interested in the Japanese language through watching anime.

“What does it mean when someone says mata ashita?” a student asked. “It means ‘see you tomorrow,’” Shimazaki replied.

“I hope we can meet again soon,” Shimazaki told the children as the class ended. In addition to language lessons, she also gives online dance lessons for children in Israel each Wednesday.

“They can’t play freely [outside] because of the air-raid sirens, but I hope they’ll at least feel relaxed after getting some form of physical exercise,” she said.

The fighting in the Gaza Strip is intensifying, and Hezbollah is becoming increasingly active. Under such circumstances, Shimazaki says she does not yet have the courage to return to Israel.

“I came to realize that having a daily life that allows us to dance and be creative is not something to be taken for granted,” she said. “The war is destroying culture, too. I can’t see a future when people can enjoy dancing in Israel as before.”