Christchurch Earthquake 2011
Nearly three years since they lost their daughters in the CTV building, the families of the Japanese victims say they cannot find closure until someone is held accountable for the collapse.
A tiny silver locket hangs hangs from Kunitoshi Kikuda's neck. Inside is a small bone taken from the body of his daughter, Saori, killed in the February 22, 2011, Christchurch earthquake when the defective CTV building collapsed around her.
Tears slid down his cheek as he gently gripped the pendant. "The reason I wear it is because I want to be with her all the time," Kikuda said.
Saori was killed along with 114 others, 12 of them Japanese students of the King's Education language school, when the building pancaked and then caught fire.
Five fathers of Japanese students who died believe until someone accepts liability for the building's failure their children's death will have been for nothing.
"In order to make this tragedy have some meaning, to change things for the better, I think something needs to be done. Otherwise their death will be meaningless," said Kawahata Kuniaki, president of the Toyama College of Foreign Languages, where the victims were students.
Kuniaki also lost his daughter Kyoko, 20, whom he had encouraged to study privately at King's language school.
The five men had gathered at the school in Toyama, a cold, grey city on Japan's west coast, to discuss their loss. The families are furious at what they believe is the New Zealand legal system's inability to hold someone accountable for the catalogue of human errors revealed in the report on the building's failure. And they are angry at the Government, which they feel has neglected their loss and their need to see someone take responsibility.
The Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission's report on the CTV building found serious deficiencies in its design and construction. The designer hadn't previously built a multi-storied building, flaws were discovered by the council but still it was approved, the construction was overseen by an engineer with counterfeit credentials, and after the September 4, 2010, earthquake the building was green stickered. .
New Zealand's accident compensation law prevents civil litigation being taken against any of the parties responsible for the errors outlined in the report, and the Institution of Professional Engineers (IPENZ) cannot take action on engineering activities done before the introduction of the Chartered Professional Engineers Act in 2002.
The police are still deciding whether to take criminal action.
All of this is unacceptable in the eyes of the Japanese families.
"I am very frustrated because ACC prevents us from bringing this case to the court. In Japan of course it is possible but in New Zealand it is impossible, and this makes us more frustrated because we can't do anything," said Nobuaki Yamatani, who every day looks at a photo of his daughter Mina on a tram in Christchurch three days before she died.
In a society built on a culture of honour, acknowledgment of fault, apology and punishment are powerful social instruments. The fathers believe the liability of those responsible should not be lost in translation.
"There is a difference in law system between the two countries but someone who should be blamed for these errors should be held accountable, and that's something which should happen regardless of the culture or the difference in the system. It is human nature," Kikuda said.
In September a Japanese kindergarten was ordered to pay ¥177 million (around $2.1 million) to the families of four children who were killed when they were drowned in the 2011 tsunami. The kindergarten had failed to anticipate the tsunami after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, evacuating the children towards lower ground where the bus was trapped and then swamped by water.
The families of those killed in the CTV building received $5541.23 as a funeral grant from ACC.
"If this had happened in Japan we would have brought this case to the court as a civil charge. But we understand that this is not possible in New Zealand. If this is the case then the New Zealand Government should do something to fill this gap," said Kazui Horita, father of Megumi.
They have sent three formal requests to the Government requesting clarification over potential liability for the "man-made disaster" and a meeting with a New Zealand government official but have heard nothing.
They say the Japanese Government looks after survivors of natural disasters much better. Two Japanese who lost their legs in the earthquake in New Zealand have been given jobs by the mayor of Toyama city, while public servants took an average compulsory 7.8 per cent pay cut to pay for the restoration of the tsunami-affected Tohoku area.
"Why hasn't something similar to what we are doing now happened in New Zealand?" asked Naohiro Kanamaru, who lost his daughter Kayo.
Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson has said he is concerned about the current regulatory framework for engineers not holding them to account. He says work is underway to fix this. But the changes, expected next year, will not be retrospective providing no recourse for the Japanese families who each year return to the scene that changed their lives. They want the Government to help the travel costs, but Williamson has said compensation is not an option.
For now the families will continue to visit Christchurch each February.
"The reason we go to New Zealand every year because when we go to that CTV building site we feel as if we could see our daughters again, said Kikuda. "So we go to Christchurch to see our beloved daughters."
Simon Day travelled to Japan with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
- Sunday Star Times
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