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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Society must find ways to reduce stress of Fukushima survivors

Holding a portrait of his late wife, Hamako, Mikio Watanabe meets reporters in Fukushima on Aug. 26 after the Fukushima District Court ruling.  
 August 27, 2014

In July 2011, Hamako Watanabe committed suicide by setting herself ablaze. Having been forced to evacuate her home in Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, after the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March that year, Watanabe was allowed to return home for a short visit. That was when she killed herself.

Her husband and children sued Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, for damages. After two years of hearings, the Fukushima District Court on Aug. 26 ruled that TEPCO is responsible for her death.

The verdict stressed the extreme stress suffered by Watanabe and her family. Forced out of her familiar surroundings and deprived of work, she could not envision any future. Her emotional anguish must have been tremendous.

The verdict also pointed out that TEPCO should have been able to foresee that a nuclear accident would force local residents into evacuation, and that some evacuees might choose to end their lives.
Since the nuclear accident brought drastic changes to the environment and the lives of the affected people, it is difficult to deny the causal relationship between the accident and Watanabe's suicide. It was a reasonable verdict.

In fact, Watanabe is not the only Fukushima evacuee who committed suicide. The court verdict reminds us anew of the unending nature of the suffering that the triple meltdown has brought.

So far, any connection between the accident and the suicides has been kept vague. There were cases where TEPCO flatly denied causality in negotiations for compensation, or offered to pay only paltry sums that were nowhere near what the bereaved families sought.

In Watanabe's lawsuit, TEPCO effectively hinted at the weakness of her character as the cause of her suicide. The utility ought to be thoroughly ashamed of itself for making such an allegation.
Whether she was strong or weak is irrelevant. There is no excuse for causing Watanabe so much stress as to drive her to suicide.

Since every suicide involves a range of factors, such as problems with health or family relations, it is never easy to determine the exact cause. Still, since Watanabe's case occurred while she and her family were living as evacuees, there is no question that the nuclear disaster had either a direct or indirect affect on her decision.

The number of suicides related to the Great East Japan Earthquake is determined by police after investigation. According to statistics compiled by the Cabinet Office, the number grew from year to year in Fukushima Prefecture: 10 in 2011, 13 in 2012 and 23 in 2013. Fukushima has had more suicides than Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, and as of the end of July, 10 people had killed themselves in Fukushima this year.

Of these 56 suicides, nearly half were in their 50s and 60s. Where the causes were known, 27 suicides had to do with health issues and 15 with economic or livelihood-related issues.
What is most important now is to prevent more tragedies rooted in the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

In addition to national and regional administrative authorities and TEPCO, our society needs to quickly come up with ways to minimize the stress of survivors so that they do not think about taking their own lives.

Source: The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 27


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