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Government Responsible for Minamata Poisonings

Saturday, October 16, 2004 Posted: 12:41 PM JST

It has taken almost half a century, but Japan's Supreme Court yesterday finally held the state responsible for not acting to stop mercury poisoning which killed hundreds of people. It was the first ruling by Japan's top court on the government's responsibility for the disease caused by waste water from a chemical plant owned by Chisso Corp. in Minamata City, Kyushu.

Japan's Supreme Court ordered the government to pay a total of 71.5 million yen (650,000 dollars) in damages to 37 victims in the last lawsuit related to what has become known as Minamata disease.

Justice Koji Kitagawa said that the state and local governments were in a position to recognise the cause of the disease by late 1959. "It was deemed illegal that they failed to control the drainage on the basis of the law on water-quality control and other laws since January 1960," the judge said.

In 1968 the national government determined that water laced with methyl mercury from the Chisso Corp. plant was the cause of the disease. Contaminated fish and shellfish subsequently poisoned people who ate them.

The disease paralyzes the central nervous and causes birth defects which may result in death. Symptoms include the loss of control of bodily movements, persistent headaches, sensory disturbance in the hands and feet and damage to vision and hearing.

The disease brought the dangers of industrial pollution into the world's eye after American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith published a series of dramatic photographs of the victims.

Some 3,000 people have been officially certified as suffering from Minamata disease. The last pending Minamata lawsuit was filed in 1982 by uncertified patients who had moved out of the Minamata area to other parts of the country before 1959. In 1994, a lower court ordered Chisso Corp. to pay 276 million yen in damages to the plaintiffs but did not acknowledge government responsibility.

In 2001, the Osaka High Court recognised government responsibility and ordered the two governments and chemical maker Chisso Corp. to pay a total of 320 million yen. Chisso Corp. accepted the decision, but the state and provincial governments appealed to the Supreme Court. All the other Minamata lawsuits were withdrawn in 1995 when the government worked out a settlement to provide a lump sump payment of 2.6 million yen each to uncertified patients.

Keywords: national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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