Tsunami-hit town’s mayor faces probe

Relatives claim officials' deaths in Minamisanriku due to negligence

Kyodo

Mayor Jin Sato of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, should be charged with professional negligence for the March 2011 tsunami deaths of town officials whom he failed to send to higher ground, their relatives said in a criminal complaint that police have finally accepted.

The tsunami from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake claimed the lives of 41 officials who were working in Minamisanriku’s three-floor disaster-prevention headquarters. Sato and nine others managed to survive by clinging to antennas on the roof of the inundated building. He was later profiled internationally as a hero.

The relatives have been pursuing a negligence complaint against Sato since March, and the police accepted it Monday, sources said. The relatives said their loved ones, many of whom spent their last 45 minutes on the second floor issuing evacuation alerts over the community public address system, felt pressured to stay because Sato was there.

According to the police, the relatives blame Sato for using a building on low land near the harbor that was likely to be in the path of tsunami for his disaster-prevention office. They also condemn the fact that Minamisanriku’s disaster prevention plan was premised on the 41 deaths from tsunami triggered by a major quake in Chile in 1960, when it should have based its plans on the 1896 Meiji Sanriku temblor, whose tsunami, which were much higher, killed 1,240 local people.

Some of the officials killed last year had time to email their families to apologize for not fleeing when the building was about to be engulfed. Their relatives suspect that because Sato remained in the building, the officials felt they couldn’t leave. The building, reduced to its steel frames, still stands, but all the other structures in the area were either washed away or later razed after being damaged beyond repair.

Some of the relatives have formed a victims’ group and previously asked Sato in an open letter to apologize for what happened and offer details about that fatal day. He responded by saying the size of the tsunami was beyond belief and that his decisions were not in error.

Civil cases seeking to hold people in positions of responsibility accountable for failing to initiate safe evacuations after the March 11 disasters are increasing, but the Sato case is the first one resulting in a police investigation.