Kindergarten told to pay for tsunami deaths

Kids died when bus was driven to lower ground after 3/11 quake


The Sendai District Court on Tuesday ordered a kindergarten in Miyagi Prefecture to pay ¥177 million in damages over the deaths of four children in a school bus that was swamped by the March 11, 2011, tsunami as it was being driven toward lower ground.

It was the first ruling on a damages suit filed by families of tsunami victims against operators of facilities in 3/11 disaster areas. It could affect at least eight other similar damages suits filed by victims’ relatives.

The ruling focused on whether the kindergarten, as an institution with a responsibility to protect the lives of children, could have foreseen the risks of tsunami and whether it took appropriate measures to avert those risks.

The plaintiffs had sought ¥267 million, insisting the kindergarten should have considered the danger as it had been violently rocked by the preceding earthquake.

The privately run kindergarten had maintained that it was impossible for the facility to foresee a tsunami of that scale, saying the disaster was the largest in 1,000 years.

Presiding Judge Norio Saiki said the kindergarten “could have easily predicted that a massive tsunami would arrive” in the area and its principal was negligent for failing to collect information on the disaster. He ordered the kindergarten to pay damages to the plaintiffs — the families of four of the five children killed in tsunami.

Saiki said the principal and other kindergarten staff “should have concretely foreseen a natural disaster, and protected pupils whose abilities to predict the danger were underdeveloped.”

He ruled the children’s deaths were the result of the kindergarten’s misjudgment in sending the bus toward lowland.

Five children and a female employee died when the shuttle bus they were in was engulfed after leaving the Hiyori kindergarten, located on a hill 23 meters above sea level in Ishinomaki, and heading for the coast.

Seven other children had gotten off the bus earlier. The driver was swept away but survived. The bus left the kindergarten about 10 minutes after the temblor hit the area and the principal ordered the children sent home.

The families said the bus drove toward the coast after failing to collect information on the tsunami. Staff at the facility had not been fully informed about anti-disaster guidelines and had not conducted any tsunami drills, according to the plaintiffs.

The kindergarten had said its staff could not hear a tsunami warning as they were busy attending to children following the quake. It also denied negligence, saying the facility was not legally obliged to conduct drills on the delivery of children to parents following a disaster.

After learning about the tsunami warning some time later, however, the principal ordered the bus to return to the kindergarten, but by then the bus, with the five remaining children on board, was caught in traffic and engulfed by the giant tsunami some 700 meters from the coast, according to the ruling.

As the kindergarten itself was safe from tsunami, plaintiffs had argued that the children could have been saved if they had stayed there, instead of being sent home by bus.

Yasushi Saijo, 45, one of the plaintiffs who lost his 6-year-old daughter, Harune, told reporters he was glad the court backed the families’ claim. A relative of another 6-year-old victim, Asuka Sasaki, said the ruling was “a blessed relief.”

The kindergarten said the ruling was “unexpected” and that it was sorry the court had rejected its arguments. Regardless of the court decision, staff remain sorrowful about the children’s loss of life and continue to pray for them, it said.

  • Stack Jones

    “The ruling focused on whether the kindergarten, as an institution with a responsibility to protect the lives of children, could have foreseen the risks of tsunami and whether it took appropriate measures to avert those risks.”

    But, under the same legal rationale, TEPCO was recently found not criminally liable for destroying much of Japan, and the Pacific Ocean through their reckless management.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      I agree. I am quite certain the driver did not intend to have her bus washed away by the tsunami – it was a situation that was completely unpredictable. How would she have known any better? It is so easy to judge in hindsight. TEPCO on the other hand… they knew the risks. They and only they should be paying.

      • Mike Wyckoff

        ” It is so easy to judge in hindsight.”

        I notice a lot of hindsight judgements go around in Japan. Just yesterday, my wife was scolded for not knowing ahead of time that the typhoon would flood the Kyoto Subway system causing extreme delays…WTF!

      • El Anon

        Glen, everybody in eastern Japan felt a massive quake for 3 minutes or longer. There were immediately tsunami warnings, as there is tsunami info after every quake here Only a complete imbecile would then go from high ground toward the ocean, instead of away from it. How can you say that a tsunami was “completely unpredictable”. Tsunamis hit Japan all the time. This was the largest, longest quake we’ve ever felt in our lifetimes. Being stupid doesn’t give you the right to do irresponsible things to people’s children. The courts should hold many people responsible for deaths of people, not just this kindergarten and driver.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        I was there, I felt it too. I have lived in Japan for 5 years and felt many quakes – and I am from Alaska, where the world’s largest measured tsunami occurred. But still, people do not always think logically when under pressure. It is SO easy to say “Oh this is how you should have done it, this is how I would have done it!” – after it has happened. Had THIS person and THIS town ever been hit by a tsunami of this size in their lifetimes? NO! I do agree however, the school should have prepared its people better, but as is so often the case, we fail to think of how bad something can be, until we experience it. Now had the driver been drunk, or intentionally drove the kids towards the waves in some perverted act of suicide, then yes, then she would have acted with intent, but she obviously was unaware and poorly trained. This person did not intentionally do anything, and to punish the school with lofty fines, while the government, TEPCO and their media lackeys, who intentionally put people at risk, and lied to the Japanese people and the world, that is the real travesty, and they should be paying the fines (not wasting money on frivolous distractions like the Olympics, for example).

      • Sandra Ogata

        There is a big percentage of Tokyo on re-claimed land. I have seen what can happen to re-claimed land (as happened out near Disney Land) in t his way. Should everyone have to pay for everything??

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Agreed – by El Anon’s logic, people who live on re-claimed land deserve it if they get swallowed up when the ground liquefies… because we all know Japan is earthquake prone.

    • Mike Wyckoff

      Exactly, sometimes I don’t understand this country.

    • Vixzer

      Unfortunately for the kindergarten owner, he/she do not have the economic backup and influence of TEPCO and certainly do not have the army of lawyers and government complacence at his/her side…

      TEPCO should have been ruled guilty criminally and they should be held responsible for all the damages that they still do to Japan and all the families in the area affected.

      The Prime minister should also be held responsible.

  • This is a fantastic decision. I could agree if there was a similar high standard applied to govt; most particularly as owners and regulators of Tokyo Electric Power Co. I wait in anticipation for all the MPs in parliament, senior executives at Tepco, local & provincial govts to face civil charges for incompetence/negligence. They have far more responsibility; but they ‘assume’ it, but then use the court, or allow the court to function as a ‘whipping boy’ when it suits them…to deflect a responsibility they should never have accepted, and the voter should never have given them. But I’d not expect your typical voter to know what’s best for them.

  • Justin Lindsay

    how utterly insane!

  • C321

    I hope this serves as a lesson to other educational establishments about the need to take disaster preparation seriously, and not cut corners to save money. There is far too much of this false economising in Japan. Wasn’t there a report a while back saying something like 2/3 of elementary schools could not be guaranteed to survive a moderately strong earthquake? I am yet to see a massive rebuilding program of the nations schools…

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      And again, this is a case of poor government oversight…

      • C321

        Yes indeed, it seems like the perfect place to spend government money, rebuilding schools is always a good investment. I guess schools just can’t offer enough… incentive to politicians.

  • El Anon

    This correct judgement now opens a can of worms for other cases where Japanese authorities such as town officials and educators took people, including children, elderly and handicapped, from high ground to places at lower level, despite tsunami warnings blaring on loudspeakers and common knowledge among everybody in Japan that massive quakes lead to killer tsunamis. In most cases, people had more than 30 minutes to get to higher ground, and that’s why thousands of people survived. On the other hand, thousands of people died because they went from higher ground to lower ground, or were taken there by authorities. God bless the souls of all these tragic victims. Let’s never forget what really happened on 311, lest it happen again.