The bereaved families of 23 children who were swept away in a devastating tsunami five years ago were awarded damages of 1.4 billion yen (S$18.7 million) by a district court yesterday.
The sum is to be paid out by the governments of Miyagi prefecture and Ishinomaki city, which district judge Kenji Takamiya of Sen- dai District Court found negligent in their evacuation procedures.
Seventy-four of 108 pupils of the city-run Okawa Elementary School died in the tsunami, which struck after a magnitude-9 earthquake rocked north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. This was the largest number of deaths at a school. Ten of the school's 13 employees also died in the disaster.
"It was possible to predict the risk of the tsunami, and although there was an urgent need to evacuate to nearby higher ground, the pupils who died had been moved to an inappropriate location to seek refuge," said Mr Takamiya in his verdict.
In their civil suit against the city and prefectural governments, the relatives of the 23 children had demanded 2.3 billion yen - 100 million yen for each child.
Although the earthquake struck at 2.46pm and tsunami warnings were sounded, officials of the school located 4km away from the coast made the children wait in the yard for 50 minutes without taking them up to a nearby knoll. The judge pointed out that the hill was just a one-minute jog away, and there were no obstacles along the route.
The families said a tsunami warning had been broadcast and municipal vehicles were urging evacuation to higher ground. A parent who went to pick up her child told teachers to evacuate the pupils to higher ground, given what she had heard about the scale of the tsunami, which reached 10m high.
But the governments argued that the school was not within the tsunami danger zone according to the city's hazard map drawn up by experts in 2004, and was in fact a designated evacuation shelter.
The hill slopes were too steep, they said, and evacuating children there would put them at risk of being hit by falling trees and mudslides from potential aftershocks. The school officials had followed the evacuation procedures they were trained in, they added.
Mr Takahiro Shito, whose 11- year-old daughter died in the disaster, told a news conference: "I have been stabbed in the heart by the knowledge that the children could have been saved."
Ishinomaki city mayor Hiroshi Kameyama told a separate news conference he took very seriously the fact that the court did not acknowledge the city's claims, and will decide on the next course of action after consulting lawyers.