TOKYO -- On Sept. 19, the Japanese judiciary returned a verdict that there was no question of criminality relating to one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.
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According to the ruling by the Tokyo District Court, the meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station could not have been foreseen, thereby acquitting three of the company's former executives from responsibility for the disaster.
The three apologized again after the decision was handed down. But with no question now as to whether they were criminally liable for what happened in March 2011, evacuees who lost their families and communities have voiced their contempt for the ruling.
But what lessons are there from the trial on the nuclear meltdown that started off after a mandatory indictment?
The decision to acquit all three men came at 1:15 p.m. in the 104 court room, the largest at the Tokyo District Court. The former TEPCO executives stood totally still as Presiding Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi read the text of the ruling aloud. As he did, a stir broke in the gallery, with some even shouting out in shock and disbelief.
Among those watching the proceedings unfold were people who lost their families to the nuclear disaster. A 66-year-old resident of Hirono in Fukushima Prefecture tried to repress her emotions while watching the three in court.
On March 11, 2011, when the tsunamis came rushing to the nuclear power station, her parents were living in "Deauville Futaba" in the town of Okuma, a care home about 4.5 kilometers southwest of the reactors. Her father was 92, and her mother was 88.
Evacuation orders were issued, and three days later on March 14 they were rescued by Japan Self-Defense Force troops alongside other members of the care home. They then appear to have ridden a bus for about 10 hours to arrive at Iwaki Koyo High School, based in the city of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture.
With no medical facilities on site and only mats to sleep on in the school's gym, the evacuees began dying one by one. Her mother passed away around March 15, and her father on the night of March 16. Their daughter only learned of their death about a week later, on March 22.
The daughter was born and raised in Okuma, and her home was just about 3 kilometers from the nuclear plant. She led a close-knit life in the community. Her father worked for the town's trash disposal facility and other places. He didn't drink, and was a quiet, honest man. He would look forward every year to the overnight trip he and his brothers in arms in World War II would take to the monument for the fallen in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, also in Fukushima Prefecture.
Her mother was a cheerful person who loved to chat. Even at the care home, she would light up the room where she lived. "Because they were opposites, they made a good couple. They were very kind to me," their daughter said. For Shichigosan, the annual celebration for girls aged three and seven, and boys aged five, her parents bought her a long-sleeved furisode kimono patterned with vibrant chrysanthemum. She treasures the photo they took on that day.
The daughter's home was washed away by the tsunamis, and the area is set to host an interim storage facility for radioactive soil generated by decontamination work. The town she and her parents shared their lives in is gone, never to return. Looking for answers as to why her parents had to die, and why the accident that caused such serious damage occurred, she chose to participate in the trial as one of the victims.
At a hearing of the trial in November 2018, she said, "Didn't TEPCO underestimate the threat from tsunamis? No one has taken responsibility for such huge damage wrought by the disaster. It's unforgivable."
She remains unconvinced by the not guilty ruling handed down on Sept. 19 this year. After the trial, she spoke quietly, saying, "The three of them might think 'We were right,' but from the victims' points of view, they got away with the damage they caused. The ruling did not bring answers," she added, "I can't think of anything else right now."
Yoshinobu Ishii, 74, of the village of Kawauchi in Fukushima Prefecture, lost his mother, Ei, then aged 91, in the midst of the evacuations. Also a resident at the Deauville Futaba care home, she died around March 14, 2011 after she too was evacuated to Iwaki Koyo High School.
She had raised Ishii and his five siblings as a single mother. "She brought us up in the midst of hardship. It's terrible that she died alone, with none of us there to be with her," he said, his voice heavy with regret.
But Ishii has no interest in the criminal court case. "Looking at it in hindsight, they could have taken measures to prevent the accident, but at the time no one expected such a terrible disaster to unfold."
He spent Sept. 19 at home. "It's important for us to make use of the lessons learned by the accident. But putting the responsibility for it on someone, that kind of talk, is pointless. After all, my mother isn't coming back," he said.
(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi and Masanori Makita, City News Department)