Minamata disease is an issue that has not yet been fully resolved. The victims of this pollution-caused disease need more relief.
Furthermore, the government needs to rightfully address the problem without first being forced to do so by the courts. In other words, it should review the remedy framework instead of continuing to unnecessarily drag things out in the courts.
On September 27, the Osaka District Court rendered its ruling in the first of four class action suits brought by approximately 1,800 plaintiffs. All of these individuals were denied relief under the Minamata Disease Special Measures Law.
In the September decision, the Osaka court recognized all 128 plaintiffs as having Minamata disease. Moreover, the court agreed with the lawsuit. It held the government and other parties responsible and ordered them to pay compensation.
The special measures law was enacted to achieve a "final solution" to the requests by Minamata disease sufferers based on "political judgment." Minamata is an illness that can damage the nervous systems of those who contract it.
Twisting the Law
The law provides for relief in the form of lump-sum payments and other benefits if certain requirements are met. This holds even if the patient is not recognized as a patient under the national standards established for this disease.
Nonetheless, the government established qualification "boundaries" based on "geographical area affected," "age" and "time of contraction." The plaintiffs in the Osaka lawsuit were among those sufferers whose claims for compensation were rejected based on these restrictive criteria.
Many of the plaintiffs are originally from the Shiranui Coast and the mountainous areas straddling Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures. That is near where the pollution, which caused the Minamata disease, occurred. They subsequently moved to the Kansai area when they got married or for other reasons.
Although they have displayed specific symptoms associated with Minamata disease, their original residence was outside the target area. Or, in some cases, they were diagnosed with Minamata disease after the expiration date set by the national government.
The District Court Decision
The Osaka District Court ruled that all the plaintiffs had Minamata disease based on a common-sense evaluation of the available evidence and logical inferences. In this instance, members of the court inferred such things as the existence of late-onset Minamata disease. That occurs when, after exposure to mercury, the symptoms take time to manifest themselves.
The decision has expanded the ranks of those who should be eligible for compensation, and the court's conclusions are convincing.
Part of the Kumamoto lawsuit, involving 1,405 plaintiffs, is expected to be decided in March 2024. Two other lawsuits in Niigata (151 plaintiffs and Tokyo (75 plaintiffs) are also pending.
It has been 67 years since the official confirmation of Minamata disease. Furthermore, it took the Osaka court nine years to reach a verdict. The average age of the plaintiffs is now roughly 71.
There's Been Enough Suffering
Many of the plaintiffs suffer from symptoms that are difficult to visibly confirm. For example, hypesthesia (an abnormally weak feeling of pain or other sensations) in the limbs or even the entire body.
Yoshie Maeda, for example, was first diagnosed with Minamata disease after the deadline for applying under the special measures law. When The Sankei Shimbun interviewed the 74-year-old Osaka resident, she confided: "I have been so hesitant to explain my symptoms that I've even taken to lying. My hand trembles so much that I can't write. So, at wedding and funeral receptions, I have to ask the receptionist to sign for me, saying that I was injured."
Through no fault of their own, victims like this unfortunate woman have been made to cry. It is believed that there are other still-unidentified victims who feel unable to seek relief in court. They are fearful of discrimination and prejudice.
Justice demands a stop to continually dragging these cases out in the courts. Instead, the national government, local governments, and the company that caused the damage in the first place should work with the plaintiffs. That way they can clarify the full extent of damage and provide relief to the victims as soon as possible.
The victims of Minamata disease should not have to shed any more tears.
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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun