National | Regional Voices: Tohoku

With appeal of Tepco acquittal, thousands hit by Fukushima nuclear disaster seek closure

Kahoku Shimpo

Plaintiffs have appealed a ruling handed down by the Tokyo District Court in mid-September that found three former Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives not guilty of professional negligence. A class action lawsuit against the executives claimed they had failed to apply the proper safety measures to prevent the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, despite being aware of the devastating effect tsunami would have.

The disaster upended daily life as local residents knew it and tore apart the social fabric of societies and communities around the area. Eight and a half years on, the victims are still grappling with the loss of their homes, and are turning to the courts for answers and closure.

Ruiko Muto, the 66-year-old leader of the class action lawsuit against former Tepco executives, has tirelessly conducted talks around the country since the nuclear disaster in 2011, which saw three of the six core reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant go into meltdown after massive tsunami struck the facility.

“Grassroots efforts are what pushes forward the social change we need to see,” she said, adding, “awareness spreads only when each individual starts to think about the issue at hand.”

Muto has campaigned for the end of nuclear power for over 30 years. Seeing the devastating effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union catapulted her into the anti-nuclear movement.

On that fateful day in the Tohoku region in March 2011, a day after a massive earthquake hit Japan, she drew parallels with what had happened in Chernobyl over 30 years ago to what was happening in her hometown.

“I thought, this is exactly the same as Chernobyl,” she said, remembering her initial reaction to hearing news of an explosion at the nuclear reactor building.

Muto eventually filed a lawsuit questioning the responsibility and accountability of the Tepco executives. She had sued them in the hope that “the truth of what happened that day and who should be held accountable would come to light,” she recalled.

Word of the lawsuit spread and support began to snowball, until ultimately 14,716 people signed on to the class action.

Muto went to Tokyo for all 37 of the court sessions held before the ruling was handed down. The notes that she took in the spectators’ gallery of the Tokyo District Court fill 14 notebooks.

From hours of listening to witnesses and pouring over evidence from the spectators’ gallery, she learned that the main reason why the executives repeatedly put off applying countermeasures against possible tsunami was they feared it would cause the company to run at a loss.

Muto believes that a lot of the evidence discussed in court would have never seen the light of day had she not filed the lawsuit.

Yet throughout the trial, the former chairman of Tepco refused to accept responsibility for the nuclear disaster, saying in court that the “relevant department should assume sole responsibility over what safety measures should have been put into place.”

“These were the words of the head of the biggest nuclear energy business in the country. It was almost like it represented a society that refuses to take responsibility,” Muto said.

The words made her feel powerless, she recalled.

Although the court claims there are 57 victims — people who had either died or were physically injured by the disaster — Muto believes “countless victims have been affected by the accident.”

Fumio Okubo was one of those countless victims.

“I wanted him to die a dignified death. It pains me that that didn’t happen,” said his daughter-in-law, Mieko Okubo, 66, as she placed flowers on his grave, nine summers after his death, before putting her hands together in quiet prayer.

In April 2011, Fumio hanged himself at their house. He was 102. It happened half a day after the government ordered the entire village to evacuate following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

On Fumio’s 99th birthday, 80 members of his extended family got together to celebrate. He wowed those who had come to celebrate by singing his favorite songs for them. When he turned 100, he received awards and gifts from all over the country celebrating his long life. That day is captured in a photo of him on his birthday, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A wide smile lights up his face in the photograph.

But two years later, as he lay in his coffin, Fumio looked calm — almost like he was sleeping. His last words to Mieko were “I might have lived a tad too long.”

As a man who loved his hometown and made a living through farming, Iitate village — his home — was also his life. Mieko eventually developed a visceral dislike for nuclear power and its potentially devastating effects. She filed a civil lawsuit at the Fukushima District Court in July 2015 against Tepco, seeking to hold the utility responsible. All she wanted was revenge.

She got that three years later in February 2018, when Mieko won the lawsuit against Tepco.

In keeping with Mieko’s wishes, Tepco employees visited her at her house to apologize in person. “We are deeply sorry,” they had said, before lighting incense in memory of Fumio — a common practice in Japan that displays respect for the deceased — as Mieko had requested.

Yet despite the courtroom win and the compliance with Mieko’s wishes, she also heard later that the employees who visited her were employees in charge of handling matters related to the “aftermath” of the accident.

“My father-in-law is gone, and he won’t ever come back. It should have been the company executives who were being held accountable for the accident who came to apologize,” Mieko said.

“I didn’t get any sense of integrity from them,” she added.

Mieko had repeatedly asked Tepco to think of the issue as one that “may have affected their very own family.” After the Great East Japan Earthquake, over 100 suicides within Fukushima Prefecture alone have been officially recognized as being caused by the nuclear disaster.

Mieko believes that there is a culture of devaluing people’s lives that is prevalent within the company.

The devastating effects of the accident are as clear as day. Yet, the detachment of the employees were as if the issue didn’t concern them at all, Mieko said.

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original articles were published on Sept. 12, 13 and 14.