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Chiba court recognizes nuke disaster evacuees' 'loss of hometown' for first time

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking damages from the government and TEPCO for residents who evacuated to Chiba Prefecture following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster hold up banners reading "Government not liable," left, and "TEPCO must pay portion of compensation," right, in front of the Chiba District Court on Sept. 22, 2017. (Mainichi)

When on Sept. 22 the Chiba District Court ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to pay some 376 million yen in damages to a group of Fukushima nuclear disaster evacuees, it gave concrete recognition to the evacuees' loss -- of hometowns, jobs and personal relationships -- for the first time.

Six and a half years after the disaster, even in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted, the reconstruction of the communities that once thrived there is still a distant prospect. However, though it absolved the government of legal liability, this court ruling -- the second in a slew of class action suits filed against TEPCO and the government -- can be said to be a breakthrough far exceeding previous compensation levels.

"The Maebashi District Court (in March) recognized the responsibility of both the government and TEPCO, but this ended up feeling like a victory in name only, with no 'reward.' But it can be said that the Chiba (District Court) decision finally reaped 'rewards,''' commented lawyer Katsuyoshi Suzuki, lead counsel of the plaintiffs' legal team in the Maebashi court case, who was at a gathering in Chiba awaiting the Sept. 22 ruling.

The Maebashi District Court awarded a total of some 460 million yen in damages. However, based on "interim guidelines" set for TEPCO by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation in August 2011 to ensure swift payouts, it was decided that TEPCO had already paid about 420 million yen. As such, a total of only 38.55 million yen was awarded to 62 of the 137 plaintiffs. Complaints followed that voices of the evacuees decrying their psychological pain had not been heard.

However, in the Chiba case, TEPCO was ordered to pay 42 out of the 45 plaintiffs a total of roughly 376 million yen, even after some 650 million yen was judged as already having been paid by the company under the "interim guidelines." It was pointed out that the guidelines only set a minimum baseline for compensation, and upon considering the individual cases, the court granted the large damages award.

What stood out was that the court explicitly recognized the payout as compensation for the loss of hometowns, jobs and personal relationships suffered by the nuclear disaster evacuees. The majority of the plaintiffs in the Chiba case were residents of designated evacuation zones, and claimed they lost their livelihoods, relationships and local customs to the nuclear disaster, and were stripped of their right to live a peaceful life. They had sought 20 million yen in compensation each, saying that the interim guidelines did not accurately reflect the pain of losing their hometowns.

Concerning communities where the evacuation orders had been lifted by this spring, including the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, TEPCO cited falling radiation levels and infrastructure restoration as evidence that the plaintiffs' claim that they lost their hometowns permanently was false. As such, TEPCO argued that their current compensation standards were sufficient.

However, even in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted, only roughly 10 percent of former residents have returned. The court decision stated, "(The plaintiffs) have lost their close connections to their local communities over a substantial period of time. Simply lifting evacuation orders will not immediately relieve this suffering," awarding 36 of the plaintiffs an average of some 3 million yen each. Nevertheless, some of the plaintiffs are not satisfied by the results.

"Our lives were disrupted," said Michiko Saito, 56, who evacuated from the Odaka district of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, to Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture. "Even if the money is returned to us, we will never get our hometowns back."

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