Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, were yesterday acquitted in the only criminal case arising from the March 11, 2011 disaster.
The "not guilty" verdict - extremely rare in a country where over 99 per cent of cases end in convictions - means nobody will go to jail over one of the world's worst nuclear tragedies.
A woman in the crowded public gallery shouted "unbelievable" as the verdict was passed, and protesters outside the Tokyo District Court held signs that read "wrongful judgment". Many of the protesters are survivors who were forced to flee their homes after the disaster.
The case has epitomised the raw emotions among those directly affected by the catastrophe. Japan has branded next year's Olympics as the "Reconstruction Games" even as it picks up the pieces and try to recoup from the disaster.
Global attention has been trained on such issues as the decontamination and decommissioning of the plant, the safety of Fukushima food, and what Japan intends to do with contaminated water that has been treated to remove radioactive toxins as space to store it runs out.
The three former executives - chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, and vice-presidents Ichiro Takekuro, 73, and Sakae Muto, 69 - had faced charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury on account of their alleged failure to install proper tsunami countermeasures.
At the heart of the case was whether they had acted properly in dismissing as "unreliable" a Tepco internal report in 2008 that 15.7m-high tsunami waves could swamp the plant after a magnitude 8.3 quake. The finding was based on the government's long-term disaster risk assessment in 2002.
"It would be impossible to operate a nuclear plant if operators are obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures," presiding judge Kenichi Nagafuchi said yesterday.
The trio's indictment was centred on the deaths of 44 people, including patients forced to evacuate from a hospital near Ground Zero, and the severe injuries sustained by 13 frontline responders from hydrogen explosions.
In all, nearly 20,000 people were killed after a magnitude 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami with 14m-high monster waves that also inundated the coastal Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing nuclear meltdowns in three reactors.
As many as 470,000 people were forced to flee their homes at the disaster's peak. Many did not return home even after evacuation orders were lifted, and the hardest-hit areas remain ghost towns today.
Apart from the criminal case, dozens of civil class action lawsuits have been filed against the government and Tepco by evacuees across Japan, with the courts ordering damages to be paid to victims.
Tokyo prosecutors had twice declined to bring charges against the three former Tepco executives, but the court was compelled to proceed with a criminal hearing after a judicial review panel in 2015 found basis for a trial. The trio were charged a year later.
Court-appointed lawyers acting as prosecutors had asked for five-year jail terms for the trio, arguing that they could easily have mitigated the nuclear disaster had they not been so dismissive of the worst-case scenario.
But the defendants said they could not have envisaged the extent of the disaster on the basis of "uncertain, obscure and esoteric" risk assessments that some seismic experts had also seen as unreliable.
Meanwhile, Tepco apologised again yesterday for "causing great trouble and worries to many people", and vowing to "put all efforts" into reconstruction.
Ms Akiko Uno, a former resident of Fukushima who has resettled in Kyoto after fleeing the disaster, told NHK tearfully: "I cannot comprehend this verdict because I just couldn't imagine this would happen. I will not give up the fight for accountability."