Japan court awards families of 23 children killed in 2011 tsunami S$18.7 million in damages

The washed out remains of Okawa Elementary School is seen in Ishinomaki city, Japan.
The washed out remains of Okawa Elementary School is seen in Ishinomaki city, Japan. PHOTO: ST FILE

TOKYO - The bereaved families of 23 children, swept away in a devastating tsunami five years ago, will be compensated 1.4 billion Japanese yen (S$18.7 million) by the governments of Miyagi prefecture and Ishinomaki city, a Japan court ruled on Wednesday (Oct 26).

Some 74 of 108 pupils enrolled at the city-run Okawa Elementary School died in the tsunami, which struck after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, in the single-most number of deaths at an affected school. Another 10 of the school's 13 staff also died.

District Judge Kenji Takamiya of Sendai District Court closed his eyes and quietly drew a breath before delivering his decision, NHK said in its report. In ruling in favour of the families, he found negligence on the part of the school and government officials.

He said: "It was possible to predict the risk of the tsunami, and although there was an urgent need to evacuate to a nearby higher ground, the pupils who died were moved to an inappropriate location to seek shelter."

In their civil suit against the city and prefectural governments, the relatives of the 23 children had demanded 2.3 billion yen - or 100 million yen for each child.

The school made the students wait in the school yard for 50 minutes without taking them up to a nearby knoll, which Mr Takamiya noted was just a one-minute jog away.

One point of contention during the trial was whether it was reasonably expected that the school, located 4km away from the coast, would have been affected by a tsunami.

Yes, the bereaved families argued, noting that a warning for a massive tsunami had been broadcast, that municipal vehicles were urging evacuation to higher ground, and that a parent had asked teachers to evacuate the students to the mountains.

A media report earlier this year also quoted survivor testimony that one of the children had raised his voice in vain against his teacher, saying: "If we stay here we'll die. Let's go up the hill … You're a teacher, why can't you understand?"

The municipal government argued otherwise, saying that the school was not predicted to be hit by a tsunami in the city's hazard map drawn up in 2004, and that it was a designated evacuation shelter.

They also argued that the slopes of the hill were too steep and there was yet the danger of fallen trees and mudslides, saying that the school officials had followed the evacuation procedures they were trained to do.

Earlier this year, Ishinomaki city said that it would preserve Okawa Elementary School as a memorial.