The Great East Japan Earthquake

3.11 GreatEarthquake

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that struck the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, Iwate Prefecture, and Fukushima Prefecture caused devastating damage, In total, an estimated 15,900 people perished, 3,789 people have been officially classified as having died as an indirect result of the disaster, and 2,523 remain missing. In addition, 1,099,881 dwellings were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Furthermore, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident (the “Power Plant Accident”), the facility operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), forced 164,865 people to evacuate from where they lived. This Power Plant Accident has been evaluated as Level 7 by The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Great East Japan Earthquake took away many fundamental aspects of the routine daily lives of the victims. Moreover, it caused various restrictions of fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan. For instance, people who perished were deprived of the most fundamental human right - the right to live. Residents who were forced to evacuate were restricted from the right to choose their place of residence, victims who lost their work were prevented from having the right to choose their work. Under these circumstances when the fundamental human rights are restricted, the rights of self-determination are diminished and the dignity of individuals, which the Constitution of Japan respects the most, is threatened. These restrictions are especially impactful on the socially vulnerable.

Amongst the duties of both the national government and local governments is the responsibility to ensure the lives and the estates that people live in, therefore the measures they take to prevent disaster and reconstruct disaster-stricken areas should be ensuring people their fundamental human rights and protecting their lives and dignity.

From this point of view, support initiatives in the disaster-affected region for disaster victims must be undertaken to accomplish a “humanitarian recovery” by regaining the restricted fundamental rights and ensuring the dignity of each individual.

The local bar associations, in cooperation with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA), have undertaken various support initiatives to accomplish the “humanitarian recovery” of disaster victims.

Immediately after the disaster occurred, lawyers visited gymnasiums used as shelters to provide legal consultations and information. As the disaster-affected region was vast and had restricted access, lawyers from all over the nation visited the area to support local lawyers.

Through this communication with disaster victims, it was found that it is important to provide many of these disaster victims with the information they needed. In Iwate Prefecture, lawyers made documents containing information of support that disaster victims needed and distributed them to disaster victims. Furthermore, large-printed documents were posted on the walls of shelters.

In Miyagi Prefecture, local lawyers, cooperating with local NPOs, had undertaken research concerning disaster victims who were staying in severely damaged houses instead of going to shelters (Zaitaku-Hisaisha, which means disaster victims who had to stay at severely damaged houses which had not been properly fixed). As a result of this research, it was found that the disaster victims were not ensured the safety of their clothing, food, and shelter. Moreover, they failed to receive appropriate information and support because they were not staying in the shelter.

As disaster victims moved from shelters to temporary housings, lawyers provided legal consultation at the assembly hall set up in the temporary housing complex. In Rikuzentakata, a city in Iwate Prefecture, lawyers visited every temporary housing complex set up in the city once a year. They spoke with disaster victims over cups of tea and explained the support system using slideshows and sometimes provided legal consultation.

In Fukushima Prefecture, in addition to the support to victims of the earthquake and tsunami, support to victims of the Power Plant Accident was also required. Although forms of compensation were widespread, not only in Fukushima Prefecture but all over Japan, lawyers from all over Japan, in conjunction with the Fukushima Prefecture Bar Association, carried out support initiatives by telephone and in-person counseling. Lawyers made notebooks for victims to record the damage incurred after the Power Plant Accident and handed them out to victims to record information that is essential to claim for compensation.

The JFBA and three bar associations in Tokyo, co-operating with the Japan Legal Support Center, provided telephone counseling from March 23rd, 2011, to October 31st, 2012, in total providing approximately 7,200 counselling sessions. They analyzed and itemized the contents of each counseling and tried to find legal basis to revise or establish legal systems. This legal counseling was essential to grasping what victims needed and had been undertaken with the system established with Japan Legal Support Center to provide free legal counseling to victims regardless of their financial status.

Throughout these initiatives lawyers had undertaken, it was found that the fundamental human rights of disaster victims were broadly restricted and what victims needed was identified. The lawyers concluded the legislation policy needed to solve those restrictions, which resulted in the following legislation and policy.

1. Expansion of the range of deceased family members available for disaster condolence money

When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, there was a law that entitles disaster victims who lost their family member from the disaster to receive condolence money. The law at the time limited the range of family members who were able to receive the condolence money only to a spouse, children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents. However, some victims who lost their siblings consulted with attorneys that it is unequal not being able to receive condolence money because they are brothers and sisters of the deceased. The local bar associations and JFBA lobbied the House of Representatives, and the lobbying resulted in the amendment of the law allowing siblings who lived with the deceased to receive the condolence money.

2. Extension of the period to submit a rejection of inheritance

Generally, successors have to decide whether they inherit or reject an inheritance within three months after an ancestor passes away based on Japanese civil law. However, attorneys heard many sufferers complained of difficulties to decide whether they should accept or not while they have not been able to find a house to live in and research the detailed inheritance immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake. As the JFBA lobbied to the House of Representatives based on these voices, the law was revised to extend the deadline to submit a rejection of inheritance.

3. Relief for outstanding mortgages of damaged houses

There were many houses built with mortgages in the affected area. Based on Japanese law, debtors are obliged to keep paying remaining home loans even if they had lost their houses due to the tsunami. This fact caused existence of sufferers who had to pay large amount of their remaining mortgages, despite the fact their houses were gone. Proceeding an official bankruptcy system to deal with remaining home loans makes it hard for sufferers to borrow money again to rebuild their lives. Based on serious concerns which had been heard from sufferers, the JFBA sought the way for sufferers to receive reductions or exemptions of the remaining debts without going into bankruptcy and discussed what to do with the government and Japanese Bankers Association. As a result, a guideline of private reorganization for individual debtors, which allows sufferers’ debts to be reduced or exempted without going into bankruptcy, was established. Attorneys negotiated with financial institutions for sufferers to keep their fortunes as much as possible.

4. Expansion of the ranges of exempt property

Japanese disaster related laws entitle sufferers to receive payments of money shown below.
① Disaster condolence money for sufferers who lost their families.
② Relief fund for sufferers who got residual disorder because of disasters
③ Relief fund for reconstruction of lives for sufferers whose houses were heavily damaged or destroyed
④ Relief funds for disaster sufferers

Though it was obvious that all kinds of money was given to sufferers as relief, condolence or reconstruction, some sufferers worried that their creditors might seize this money. To address this concern, the law was amended to forbid seizure of these types of relief money. Japanese laws allow debtors to keep property, the seizure of which is forbidden by law, even when they go into bankruptcy. The amended law enables sufferers who have chosen to go into bankruptcy to keep these four kinds of relief money and to be exempted from paying remaining debts. It also enables sufferers who have chosen new guidelines mentioned above to receive reduction or exemption of debts while they keep these kinds of money.

5. Extension of statute of limitations concerning the Power Plant Accident

In Japanese law, the claim for compensation for loss or damage caused by tort is extinguished by prescription if the right is not exercised within three years from the time when the victim comes to know the damage and the identity of the perpetrator, in principle. However, it was obvious that it was almost impossible to claim damages within three years because victims of the Power Plant Accident were forced to evacuate from where they live to all over Japan without necessities which could be used as basic evidence to calculate the damage incurred. In addition, it was also obvious that the victims would require some time to grasp what extent of damage they could claim for. As a result of lobbying of lawyers, the statute of limitations regarding the Power Plant Accident was extended to ten years, which is an exception of a basic principle.

6. Special law for victims of Fukushima accident

The Act on Promotion of Support Measures for the Lives of Disaster Victims to Protect and Support Children and Other Residents Suffering Damage due to Tokyo Electric Power Company's Nuclear Accident was established in June 2012. The main feature of this law is that it integrates many needs of individuals such as pregnant women and children. This law states clearly that the government which has promoted nuclear policy should be responsible for supporting victims, and the rights of victims to choose their future, such as staying, evacuating, returning should be respected. The establishment of this law is a result of lobbying by attorneys who were deeply engaged in supporting victims of the Power Plant Accident.

After the Power Plant Accident, the Nuclear Damage Compensation Dispute Resolution Center, whose role was to mediate the compensation regarding the accident was established. Many attorneys participated in this center as researchers and mediators to attempt to accomplish the satisfying remedies to victims. Many attorneys also have contributed to improve the standards of compensation by filing lawsuits. In December 2022, the intermediate standards, which is considered as the model standard, was revised after several lawsuits for compensation were confirmed in the Supreme Court.

The supportive initiative by attorneys is still being conducted. The idea of “humanitarian recovery”, which has been the belief of supportive initiative in the Great East Japan Earthquake, has been extended to following disasters and evolving continuously.

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