Last week, Japan marked the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit the country in 2011, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or unaccounted for and triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history. A moment of silence was observed across the country at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, the time the earthquake struck. Sports teams interrupted their practice to pray for the souls of those who perished. “We must never let the valuable lessons that we have learned from the enormous damage caused by the disaster to fade away,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a commemorative ceremony.
The following day, three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation, or TEPCO—which operated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant when it took a direct hit from the tsunami—entered the district courthouse in Tokyo for the final day of their trial. They reiterated pleas of “not guilty” in response to charges of criminal negligence in connection with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The prosecution is requesting that each defendant serve five years in prison.
The case has garnered attention in Japan partly for the unusual circumstances that led to it. Initially, the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office twice declined to issue indictments. But an inquest panel, a mechanism by which aggrieved plaintiffs can try to force a trial, rejected those decisions, ensuring the case would be heard. At its heart, though, the TEPCO trial is a test of whether the Japanese system of justice can live up to Abe’s lofty exhortation: to preserve the lessons of one of the worst nuclear accidents in modern history by holding accountable those who failed to prevent it.