3 Get 2 Years in Prison over Avalanche Deaths in Japan

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Utsunomiya District Court

Utsunomiya, Tochigi Pref., May 30 (Jiji Press) — A Japanese district court sentenced three people to two years in prison over deaths caused by an avalanche during a school training program in Tochigi Prefecture in 2017.

Toshifumi Takioka, presiding judge at Utsunomiya District Court, found the three defendants guilty of professional negligence resulting in death and injury after eight people, mainly students from the mountaineering club of Tochigi Prefectural Otawara High School, died in the avalanche during the hiking training in the Tochigi town of Nasu.

Prosecutors had sought four-year prison sentences for all three people, who played major roles in the training program as teachers.

“The danger of an avalanche was fully predictable,” Takioka said, concluding that the incident was a “man-made disaster due to heavy carelessness.”

The focus of the trial was whether the three defendants could have foreseen the avalanche. The defense had argued that they were not guilty as they could not have predicted that an avalanche would occur.

The three are Shuichi Inose, 57, Hisao Sugamata, 55, and Hironori Watanabe, 61. Inose was in charge of the mountaineering training, while Sugamata led the group that included the killed students and Watanabe led a later group.

In the ruling, Takioka pointed out that the incident occurred on a steep slope with sparse vegetation and that at least 30 centimeters of snow had accumulated. “It was fully possible to foresee the risk of an avalanche,” he said.

On the defense’s claim that the defendants took safety measures such as designating a training area and informing each group about it, the presiding judge said that they “did not clearly set a training area or make it known appropriately.”

Takioka also said that although the training was held as part of school education, the defendants neglected to collect information to ensure safety, such as checking a topographic map and obtaining information on the amount of snowfall.

He pointed out that the defendants did not commit a crime intentionally, but the consequences of losing eight lives were very serious. The pain of the bereaved families who suddenly lost their children is too severe to imagine, he said.

“It cannot be said that there are circumstances in which the execution of the sentence should be suspended, and an unsuspended prison sentence is unavoidable,” Takioka said, citing the trio’s denial of the facts.

According to the ruling, the three defendants conducted training in walking in deep snow near the Chausudake mountain on March 27, 2017, without taking necessary safety precautions, despite the risk of an avalanche following snowfall the previous night. The avalanche killed seven students and one teacher from the high school.

The ruling is a “landmark verdict that gives a warning on school safety,” said Masaru Oku, 52, who lost his oldest son, Masaki, then 16, in the incident. “I hope (the ruling) will serve as a lesson for schoolteachers,” said Oku, who heads a group of bereaved families.