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TEPCO ordered to pay damages over centenarian's suicide after nuclear disaster

Mieko Okubo holds a photo of Fumio Okubo during a news conference at the Fukushima Prefectural Government headquarters on Feb. 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) must pay compensation over the suicide of a centenarian who took his own life shortly before he was to be forcibly evacuated from his hometown due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, a local court has ruled.

The Fukushima District Court ordered the power company on Feb. 20 to pay 15.2 million yen in damages to the bereaved family of Fumio Okubo from the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate, who died at the age of 102.

In the ruling, the court recognized the causal relationship between the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant and Okubo's suicide.

"An unbearable mental burden caused by the nuclear accident had a huge impact on the victim's decision to take his own life," Presiding Judge Hideki Kanazawa said as he handed down the ruling.

TEPCO's public relations division commented that the company "will sincerely respond to the case after closely examining the ruling."

According to the legal team for the plaintiffs, this is the third court case in which TEPCO has been held responsible over the suicide of an evacuee from a region affected by the nuclear crisis.

According to the ruling, Okubo was born and raised in Iitate. In his post-retirement life, he had enjoyed strolling in his neighborhood and chatting with friends while drinking tea, until the area was hit by the nuclear disaster triggered by the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

Okubo hanged himself at his home on the morning of April 12, the day after he learned from a TV news program that Iitate, which is located some 30 to 50 kilometers northwest of the power station, was designated as an evacuation zone.

In the trial, the plaintiffs demanded 60.5 million yen in compensation, claiming that the evacuation forced Okubo to take his own life. "He had all his friends and assets as well as motivation in life in the village, and the only cause of his suicide we can think of is the forced evacuation due to the nuclear accident," a representative of the bereaved family said in the trial.

TEPCO argued that the causal relationship between the disaster and Okubo's suicide remained unclear.

Presiding Judge Kanazawa recognized that Okubo's mental anguish caused by his loss of village life, which he had continued for more than 100 years, and a lack of prospect for returning home ultimately triggered his suicide.

At the same time, the presiding judge deemed that Okubo's will to avoid burdening his family after evacuation also contributed to his decision to take his own life, and determined that the ratio of TEPCO's responsibility for the centenarian's suicide was 60 percent.

Mieko Okubo, 65, the wife of Okubo's second son, expressed appreciation for the ruling.

"I finally can say to my father-in-law, 'Please rest in peace,'" she said.

Okubo worked until he was nearly 80 and never lived outside Iitate. He sang his favorite song "Sumo Jinku," which is performed during sumo wrestlers' regional tours, in front of nearly 100 villagers who gathered at a party to celebrate his 99th birthday. He was also looking forward to visits by his grandchildren.

Mieko, who married Okubo's second son more than 40 years ago, was Okubo's main conversation partner during the day because her husband was often away from home for work.

Whenever she jokingly told him, "I feel as if I married you," he often laughed.

However, the nuclear disaster deprived the Okubo family of the peaceful life they had enjoyed. When Okubo saw a TV program reporting that an evacuation order would be shortly issued to the village, Okubo said, "I don't want to leave this village. I've lived too long."

He did not eat dinner that night, even though his favorite boiled dish was served. The following morning, Mieko went to Okubo's room to notify him that breakfast was ready, only to find that he had hanged himself.

"The village was everything for him. Ordering him to leave Iitate was tantamount to telling him to die," Mieko said.

Mieko and other members of Okubo's family launched the damages suit in July 2015 in a bid to have TEPCO admit to its responsibility for his suicide. While some people criticized the family over their legal action, the family received nearly 100 letters of encouragement from all over Japan.

The family members, who are now taking shelter at an apartment in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, intend to return to their home in Iitate by the end of this year.

Mieko and her family hope that TEPCO will acknowledge its responsibility for Okubo's suicide and apologize. "I'd like TEPCO officials to offer an incense stick" for the soul of Okubo, Mieko said.

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