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Ishinomaki, Miyagi Pref. gov'ts to take Okawa elementary tsunami case to Supreme Court

The plaintiffs in the Okawa Elementary School compensation case watch the Ishinomaki Municipal Assembly adopt a motion to appeal the Sendai High Court ruling to the Supreme Court, at the assembly building, in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on May 8, 2018. (Mainichi)

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi -- The municipal assembly here has approved the mayor's motion to appeal the Sendai High Court ruling granting compensation to the surviving families of the Okawa Elementary School students who died in the March 2011 tsunami, it has been learned.

The Ishinomaki Municipal Assembly decided to approve the proposal by Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama to take the case to the Supreme Court by a vote of 16-12 on May 8. The decision was in response to the Sendai High Court decision ordering the city and the Miyagi Prefectural Government to pay some 2.3 billion yen to the families of the 23 students that died on March 11, 2011, over a lack of evacuation preparation by the school and the city board of education. The Miyagi Prefectural Government has also made it clear that it will follow the Ishinomaki government's lead in appealing the case to the country's highest court.

At the extraordinary assembly session called by Kameyama on May 8, he emphasized that the scale of the tsunami that hit the city-run school could not have been predicted and explained, "While we are sincerely reflecting on the responsibility of the operator of the school to guarantee the safety of the children who attend the facility, what is being requested of the municipal board of education, the principal and other related parties includes things that are difficult to realize after the disaster, and the basis for the recognition of negligence is unreasonable," as the reason for the appeal.

While some municipal assembly members agreed with the mayor's opinions that the decision was overly strict on the school staff and teachers, others were opposed to appealing the case, saying that the trial should not be drawn out any further in consideration of the city residents' feelings and that the incident should be treated as the first step to preventing a similar accident from occurring again. Kameyama said, "I would like the Supreme Court to discuss how future disaster prevention should be handled as a national issue, and suggest new policies to the national government."

Ten members from the bereaved families who were plaintiffs in the compensation suit watched the deliberations from the gallery. When the appeal was decided by a standing vote, representative of the plaintiffs Hiroyuki Konno, 56, lamented, "The lives of our children are not tools. Asking the central government to handle school disaster prevention where the municipal government should be taking the lead is an act of dodging responsibility that is unacceptable." Another family member, 57-year-old Mitsuhiro Sato, sorrowfully said, "Even after seven years, they still do not understand our feelings."

After the closing of the assembly session, Mayor Kameyama made a visit to the Miyagi Prefectural Government building and met with Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai. In response to a request for comment, the governor let his intention to appeal the case be known. As for his reasoning, he said, "Since the trial began, I have consistently respected the decision of the Ishinomaki Municipal Government who managed the school facilities." He also disclosed that he will move forward with the procedures under his authority as governor without calling the prefectural assembly into session. As the deadline for the appeal is set for May 10, Murai explained, "There is no time to wait for the prefectural assembly to handle the matter."

(Japanese original by Nobuyuki Hyakutake, Ishinomaki Local Bureau, Atsuko Motohashi and Kaho Hayakawa, Sendai Bureau)

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