For Fukushima fisherman Haruo Ono, a lawsuit against the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is his last hope for decency and living following Japan’s discharge of nuclear-contaminated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

At one point in recent past, Ono became stressed and had to seek medical treatment. In his view, there is no justification for disposing of radioactive substances into the sea and “we will undoubtedly suffer significant consequences”.

Ono thus joined 362 other plaintiffs nationwide seeking to bring the Japanese government and TEPCO to justice. TEPCO is the operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The first public hearing of the case was held at the Fukushima District Court in Fukushima City on 04 March.

The case marks that Japanese fishing industry stakeholders and ordinary citizens have united to call for an end to the discharge.

The family of Ono, a resident in Shinchi Town, Fukushima Prefecture, have been engaged in fishing since his grandparents’ generation. Born in 1952, he is the eldest son of a fisherman, and his sons are also fishermen.

Ono became a captain around the age of 30. For him, working at sea is an attractive profession.

“We fishermen receive income from the sea’s natural blessings and regard the sea with reverence beyond human understanding, believing that the treasure of the sea should be passed down from the past to the present and the future,” said Ono during the public hearing on Monday.

However, due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011, fishermen have experienced difficult circumstances.

“Not being able to fish freely means that our workplaces have been taken away from us, which is unbearable,” Ono said.

“We don’t know when the Fukushima Daiichi decommissioning will be completed. Compensation may be terminated. Fishing may no longer be sustainable. I try to tell myself that I’m getting old, but when I think about my sons who have taken over the fishing business, I am still anxious,” he told the hearing.

“What we fishermen are asking for is to keep the ocean clean, to be free from radioactive contamination, to finish the Fukushima Daiichi decommissioning safely as soon as possible, to return to full-scale fishery operations, and to continue fishing for generations to come.”

Many plaintiffs do not see financial issues as their main concern, said Tsuguo Hirota, a co-representative of their lawyers.

“Their job is to deliver delicious and safe fish to the public, and to serve the customers at their shops. They see this as the essence of their existence as fishermen or fish sellers,” Hirota told China Daily.

“Therefore, many stakeholders participating in this trial think of this as an issue related to their sense of purpose. Their pride as fishermen or as business owners is the primary driving force for them,” he added.

Fukushima Prefecture’s industries remain impacted — agricultural output has recovered to 90 percent of pre-accident levels but forestry output is at 80 percent and coastal fishery landings remain about 20 percent.

Concerns about the long-term effects of continued ocean discharge have been raised, said Sugie Tanji, the plaintiff group’s office director.

Although the government and mass media emphasiSe the “recovery of Fukushima”, not even “restoration” has been achieved, Tanji said.

“There are no schools, medical facilities, supermarkets, or gas stations in the areas that residents can return to with peace of mind,” she said.

“The future image of the prefecture cannot be envisioned. While decontamination, decommissioning, and related work at the nuclear power plant continue to increase, at least 80,000 people or more cannot return to their hometowns,” she added.

“The damage from the Fukushima nuclear accident continues. This is not ‘baseless rumour’. Many people who convey the spread of radioactive materials and the truth of the damage have been labeled as ‘rumourmongers’’, leaving many silent victims.

“It’s a sad and painful reality, but we must face the facts as they are and seek genuine relief, restoration, and recovery. Otherwise, the victims will be abandoned, and division will only widen,” Tanji said.

Chiyo Oda, a co-representative of the plaintiff group, has been living in Iwaki City on Fukushima’s Pacific coast for over 40 years. It used to be common to see locals fish, swim, and play by the shore.

“However, after the nuclear accident, in order to avoid the effects of the radiation that poured down due to the accident, we had to adopt a lifestyle where everything, from the air to the water, from what we ate to what we touched, had to be inspected — a lifestyle unimaginable before the accident,” Oda told judges in court.

Nevertheless, over the past 13 years, local residents tirelessly strived to return to normal. However, just when things were finally starting to settle down, the Pacific discharge decision was announced in 2021, before beginning last year.

“This ocean dumping, carried out intentionally by human hands, signifies the continued spread of radiation. It is truly unacceptable as it resurrects the fear and anxiety that the citizens experienced immediately after the nuclear accident. It nullifies countless efforts that people have desperately made, and this should not be allowed to happen,” she said.

After the nuclear accident, Japanese citizens have engaged in activities to prevent further pollution of the sea. Oda became co-director of KOREUMI, a citizens’ group formed primarily by Fukushima residents who experienced the disaster.

“Regarding this ocean dumping, there are many things that are incomprehensible and questionable to me, and I feel that promises were broken without adequate explanation,” she said.

“Was it really necessary to dump what had been stored in tanks for so long into the sea? The treated contaminated water does not only contain tritium. How can they assert that it is ‘safe’ when they are releasing radioactive substances with known harmful effects?” Oda asked.

“It is said that it will take 30 years to complete the dumping but considering that there is no clear plan for handling melted debris, isn’t it impossible for this ocean dumping to end within 30 years? … I believe that the country and TEPCO have an obligation to listen to our voices and provide clear answers.”

Furthermore, on 26 October last year, TEPCO announced that an accident occurred where workers were exposed to nuclear-contaminated water while cleaning pipes at the Advanced Liquid Processing System at the Fukushima plant.

On 07 February, TEPCO informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that water containing radioactive materials was found to have leaked from a cesium absorption tower at the plant.

“I cannot help but have serious doubts about the management capabilities of the government and TEPCO. Many citizens, including myself, fear that if ocean dumping continues, even worse accidents than this will occur,” Oda said.

According to TEPCO, the reason for the ocean discharge is that the tanks storing contaminated water are full and there is no space to build new tanks, noted Hirota, the lawyer.

However, even from watching the television news, it is apparent that there is vacant land within the plant’s premises, he said.

TEPCO has explained that the currently available vacant land is necessary for storing debris but as it stated that it will take over 30 years to remove the debris, the land will be vacant for 30 years, he added.

“Fukushima is our hometown, so our determination to oppose ocean pollution, such as contaminated water that could destroy our environment, remains unchanged. Although the government talks about not causing environmental pollution, we don’t trust such words. We believe that the settlement of this trial will be decisive,” he said.