Protecting kids from disaster

The Sendai District Court on Sept. 17 ordered a kindergarten in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, to pay ¥177 million in compensation for the deaths of four children in a school bus that was engulfed by the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

The private kindergarten was located on a hill 23 meters above sea level. But after the massive quake hit, the bus left the kindergarten and headed for the coast. After seven children got off the bus, it was swamped by the tsunami and five children and a kindergarten employee remaining in it died.

The ruling is the first of its kind and similar lawsuits related to the 3/11 tsunami have already been filed. The ruling issues a strong message that principals of kindergartens and schools bear a heavy responsibility to make proper judgments in the event of a disaster and protect the lives of children. It will be imperative for them to immediately collect disaster-related information and use their imagination with regard to imminent dangers.

The bereaved families of the four dead children filed a lawsuit, demanding that the kindergarten pay them ¥267 million in damages. The focus of the lawsuit was whether the kindergarten head was able to predict the coming of the tsunami.

During the trial, the kindergarten insisted that since even local governments could not predict the arrival of such a massive tsunami, it was impossible to predict the occurrence of the quake, which was the largest in 1,000 years, and the subsequent tsunami. It also said that its staff was so busy attending to children after the quake that they did not have time and composure to collect relevant information through such means as radio.

The ruling said that because strong quake vibrations up to 6-minus on the Japanese scale of 7 continued for three minutes, it should have been easy for the kindergarten head to expect that a massive tsunami would follow. It also pointed out that the kindergarten head had the duty to actively collect relevant information including a tsunami warning.

It is regrettable that although the kindergarten had an anti-disaster manual, it failed to familiarize its staff with it. The manual said that if an earthquake happens, children will be told to stay in the kindergarten and wait for their parents to pick them up.

The kindergarten also failed to carry out training to prepare for a tsunami. As the ruling said, if the kindergarten had followed the manual, the lives of the four children and the employee would not have been lost.

Because it is predicted that a massive quake will happen close to Tokyo or in the Nankai trough stretching from off Shizuoka Prefecture to off Shikoku, principals of kindergartens and schools need to work out a plan in advance on how to lead children to safety in the event of a major quake and tsunami.

Anti-disaster training and education for children and teachers also must be pushed vigorously.