Aug. 26, 2014
A court has ruled that Fukushima Daiichi plant nuclear operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) was responsible for a woman’s suicide following the March 2011 disaster and must pay 49 million yen compensation, in a landmark ruling that could set a precedent for other claims against the utility.
The civil suit, filed at the Fukushima District Court by Mikio Watanabe, claimed that TEPCO was to blame for the July 2011 death of his wife, Hamako, 58, who doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after falling into depression.
She left no suicide note, but Mikio, 64, said TEPCO was directly responsible.
“If that accident hadn’t happened, we would have lived a normal, peaceful life” on their family farm some 50 km from the plant, said Mikio, who discovered her charred body.
Watanabe had sought about 91 million yen in damages and had declined to settle out of court. He told Reuters after the verdict: “I am satisfied with the decision.” He said he believed his wife was satisfied, too.
“We would like to deeply apologise again for the disruption and concern that the Fukushima Daiichi accident caused to many people, first and foremost the people of Fukushima,” TEPCO said in a statement following the verdict.
“We will study the verdict and respond in a sincere way,” it added. “We pray that Hamako Watanabe has found peace.”
The court decision is the latest blow for the utility, which was bailed out with taxpayer funds in 2012 and expects to spend nearly 5 trillion yen in compensation alone for the nuclear disaster
The triple nuclear meltdowns forced more than 150,000 people from their homes, about a third of whom remain in temporary housing.
TEPCO has settled a number of suicide-related claims through a government dispute resolution system, but has declined to say how many or give details on how much it has paid.
Japan has made public 25 disaster-related death cases that were settled through the resolution system, some for more than 16 million yen. Causes of death were not always specified, and include those due to natural causes, such as elderly patients who died in evacuation centers.
Watanabe has broken off contact with relatives who urged him to drop his suit. His oldest son left his job after co-workers harassed him, accusing him of using his mother’s death for personal gain.
Like her husband, Hamako had grown up in Yamakiya, a rural pocket of farms and rice paddies surrounded by hills inside Kawamata Town. Being forced to leave plunged her into a sudden and deep depression, he said.
Watanabe’s house is still in an exclusion zone, where traffic is restricted to former residents and decontamination crews. He now lives alone in prefabricated housing on what used to be a sports field and regularly commutes to maintain the empty home, and the yard where his family used to have barbecues and watch the fireflies blinking under the stars.
After evacuating, Watanabe’s family moved through a series of shelters before finding a small apartment. Then he and Hamako lost their jobs at a local chicken farm when it closed as the public shunned food from Fukushima.
“She worried constantly and kept asking, ‘What will we do next?’ and ‘How can we pay our house loan?’”
In late June 2011, Hamako begged Watanabe to take her home. He agreed to go to their house and spend one last night there, hoping the familiar settings would put her at ease.
On June 30, Hamako cooked in the kitchen while her husband cleared the neck-high brush around the house. After, they sat together by a window with a sweeping view of their property. She seemed happy, Watanabe said. She asked him if they really had to leave the next day.
“She said, ‘Well you can go back, but I want to stay here even if that means living alone. I never want to leave my home.’ I told her, ‘Don’t be stupid, we have to leave together.’”
The next morning, Watanabe resumed clearing brush. In the distance, under the spreading boughs of a tall tree, he noticed a fire. He assumed his wife was burning trash as usual, and continued working. When he returned, he found Hamako’s charred remains.
Hirota, Watanabe’s lawyer, said the verdict could set the stage for others who have experienced losses as a result of the nuclear disaster to take similar legal action.
“For the claimants, it’s not about the money. They want to know what the meaning of their husband’s death was, or why their mother had to perish this way,” he said.
Civil suits are uncommon in Japan, where victims are far more likely to skirt arduous court battles and accept settlements.
The case also highlights what advocates call a quiet crisis of depression in Japan’s disaster zone, which many say has gone unnoticed in a culture that values stoicism and stigmatises mental illness.
“Their houses are still there, but they can’t go back,” said Shinichi Niwa, a professor of psychiatry at Fukushima Medical University, who said that displacement contributed to anger, despair and suicide.
Between 2011 and 2013, suicides declined 11% across Japan. Suicides in Fukushima had also been decreasing in the years before the disaster, but deaths have ticked up in the past two years.
Since April 2011, there have been more than 1,500 suicides in the prefecture. Authorities have so far ruled 54 of those deaths to be “disaster related”.
Japan’s government has dispatched counsellors, appointed a government minister in charge of suicide prevention and provided funding to local organizations for survivors and evacuees like Watanabe.
TEPCO was bailed out with taxpayer funds in 2012 and expects to spend more than 4.8 trillion yen in compensation alone, and billions more for a decades-long costly decommission.
The utility currently pays all nuclear evacuees a stipend equal of about 100,000 yen a month for emotional distress caused by the accident. TEPCO also provides compensation to those who lost their jobs and partially pays for the value of their homes depending on the length of their forced evacuation. Those evacuees living in areas that have no timeline for their return receive payment for the full value of their homes.
The utility remains under pressure to cut costs as plans to restart its remaining nuclear complex in Japan’s northwest have stalled in the face of local opposition.
Toru Takeda, 73, a retired high school teacher from a nearby town, travelled from his temporary home in Yamagata in north Japan to hear Tuesday’s verdict. Takeda has filed a lawsuit against Tepco over his inability to return to his home.
“Our verdict will come next month from the same court, so, of course, we welcome this outcome,” he told Reuters.