Minamata Disease Lawsuit: Court Ruling Puts Top Priority on Providing Relief to Victims

Fifty-five years have passed since Minamata disease was officially recognized as being caused by industrial pollution. People stricken by the malady are aging. The government must expedite necessary relief measures.

In a class action lawsuit filed by 128 people from Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures who were deemed ineligible for governmental relief measures, the Osaka District Court has ordered the central government, the Kumamoto prefectural government and Chisso Corp. — the company responsible for causing Minamata disease — to pay ¥2.75 million in damages to each plaintiff.

Similar lawsuits have been filed at district courts in Kumamoto Prefecture and Tokyo, and a lawsuit lodged by unrecognized sufferers of Niigata Minamata disease is currently pending at the Niigata District Court. The Osaka District Court ruling was the first judicial judgment to be handed down in a series of related lawsuits, and could have an impact on the subsequent suits.

Minamata disease is a poisoning caused by methylmercury that was discharged into the sea by a Chisso factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. People developed the disease after consuming contaminated seafood. The condition was officially recognized in 1968 as being caused by industrial pollution and a special law for a relief program came into effect in 2009, allowing lump-sum payments to be disbursed to victims.

The special law applies to residents of nine cities and towns around Minamata Bay who were born before December 1969; Chisso stopped discharging mercury into the sea in 1968. The plaintiffs filed their suit in 2014 because they had been excluded from government relief measures as they had no formal record of having lived in the areas stipulated in the law, among other reasons.

The court acknowledged that there was a causal relationship between sufferers’ symptoms, including numbness in their limbs, and the ingestion of methylmercury.

The court further concluded that people living outside the areas covered by the law could also have contracted Minamata disease if they had regularly ingested contaminated seafood, ordering the defendants to compensate all the plaintiffs.

The court was likely keen to find a way to address the problem by prioritizing the provision of relief to the victims, rather than formally applying the requirements necessary under the special law.

The central government has claimed that the right to demand compensation should expire 20 years after the date of an alleged illegal act, but the court rejected this assertion.

The special law stipulates that “all those affected should be provided with relief to the fullest extent possible.” It can be said that the Osaka District Court ruling attached importance to the original purpose of the law.

The average age of the plaintiffs is over 70. Even though the other district courts have yet to rule on the case, the central government should start considering how to provide prompt relief to people who contracted the disease.

Mercury-related health issues are an ongoing problem in developing countries and elsewhere. This is because mercury is emitted during coal-fired power generation and gold mining.

Based on lessons learned from issues surrounding Minamata disease, an international convention to regulate the use, import and export of mercury came into effect in 2017, with more than 140 countries and regions signing up. It is hoped that Japan will take the lead in working with other countries to boost efforts to help reduce the use of mercury, through the promotion of related technologies and the development of human resources.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 28, 2023)