Asbestos Truth and Consequences in Japan
The dire consequences of delays by the Japanese Government in addressing the asbestos hazard are continuing to emerge, with data revealed on September 10, 2021 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare documenting a new record for the number of deaths last year (2020) from mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure.1 Fatalities were not distributed uniformly around the country or the population but were, showed the new statistics, concentrated in the urban areas of Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Sapporo, Nagoya and Amagasaki with the number of deaths amongst males (1,337) nearly five times that of females (268). Epidemiologists predict that between 2000 and 2040, the Japanese mesothelioma epidemic could claim a further 103,000 lives.
None of this is surprising. While other industrialized nations took action to ban or curtail asbestos usage many decades ago, as recently as 1995 annual asbestos consumption in Japan was 193,800 tonnes (t), down from the peak of 398,877t in 1980 but still way more than any other G7 country.2 From 1967 until 1997, Japan imported more than 150,000t/year with consumption of 200,000t/year from 1968 to 1994. Given the vast accumulation of medical and scientific knowledge about the human health hazards posed by exposures to asbestos, politicians and their advisors could have been in no doubt about the serious consequences of their failure to act.
Perhaps the Government had been lulled into a false sense of security by prevailing Japanese customs and practices which had forestalled generations of workers from bringing legal action against those responsible for toxic workplace exposures.3 Whatever the reason, on May 17, 2021 Japans Supreme Court decided that the lack of timely action to protect citizens from asbestos was unacceptable.4 As a result of that ruling, the Government was held liable for compensation to hundreds of construction workers injured by deadly asbestos exposures. According to colleagues in Japan, settlements are now being progressed by the Government with all the plaintiffs who were part of the construction asbestos litigation.5
On May 18, 2021, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized in person to a group of the injured and family members saying:
We are speechless when we think about the suffering and burden you have long borne and the grief you experienced with the loss of your family members We take our responsibility seriously and will do serious soul searching, and I, representing the government, offer a heartfelt apology to you.6
On June 9, 2021 a law was passed by the upper house of the National Diet under which a scheme to compensate asbestos-injured construction workers would be established by the Japanese Government without the need for victims or their families to take legal action. Successful claimants will receive between 5 and 13 million yen (~US45,660-119,000)7; the scheme is due to become operational in 2022. Although self-employed workers are eligible for compensation under this scheme, construction workers who worked outdoors will not be able to bring a claim. Feedback from Japan is that construction workers who had not yet brought cases before the courts are planning to submit claims to the new scheme and not resort to litigation.
Unfortunately, many of Japans asbestos victims will not automatically be eligible for government benefits or compensation. The good news is that with the huge media coverage of the Supreme Cout ruling, the Prime Ministers apology, the new government scheme and a high-profile trade union rally in Tokyo on June 16, 2021,8 awareness of the rights of the asbestos-injured has never been higher. Telephone asbestos hotlines run by groups such as the Asbestos Victim Relief Fund NGO from Kobe, the Pneumoconiosis and Asbestos Victims Relief Fund from Kanagawa Prefecture and the Asbestos General Counselling Service for Akashi City over recent weeks have facilitated access to vital information; even the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare set up a telephone consultation service to assist individuals concerned about occupational asbestos exposures.9
The damage done by decades of widespread and unregulated use of asbestos in Japan cannot be undone. The injuries sustained by the inhalation of toxic fibers can worsen over time and with Japans aging population more cases of asbestos-related diseases will become manifest.
Summing up the current situation, Japanese asbestos victims campaigner Sugio Furuya said:
The Supreme Court decision was a seismic event and one that would not have come about without the determination of hundreds of asbestos-injured construction workers, support of trade unions, campaigning by asbestos victims groups and sustained work by multiple legal teams. That they had to fight so long and so hard to force the Government to take responsibility for its negligence was appalling. The victory came too late for many of the plaintiffs who died in pain waiting for justice. It is our duty to ensure that other sufferers of asbestos-related diseases receive the support they need in order to achieve compensation for their injuries. The Government must accept its responsibilities to all of them; we will continue this battle until they do.10
September 24, 2021
1 昨年の中皮腫死1600人超で最多 ワースト3は東京・大阪・神奈川 アスベスト曝露と連動 [Last year's mesothelioma deaths exceeded 1,600, with the worst 3 (areas) for asbestos exposure being Tokyo, Osaka and Kanagawa]. September 20, 2021.
2 According to data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1995, asbestos consumption in the G7 countries was: France 47,981 tonnes (t), Canada 15,114t, US 14,675t, UK 10,143t, Italy 104t, Germany 98t.
United States Geological Survey. USGS Asbestos Data 1900-2003. 2006.
3 When I was attending a workshop for railway workers and trade unionists in Yokohoma, Japan in 2007, I was told that there had been no legal cases ever brought over asbestos-related deaths amongst railway workers.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Historic Victory for Japans Asbestos Victims! May 20, 2021.
5 It should also be noted that the Supreme Court acknowledged the governments responsibility to asbestos victims who had worked at asbestos-using factories under certain conditions; to receive government compensation, they still have to seek recourse to the courts and negotiate settlements on a case-by-case basis.
7 The amount of compensation paid under the new scheme is about half of what would have been obtained as a result of a successful lawsuit.
9 International Ban Asbestos Secretariat News Digest shows a plethora of legal cases being settled and outreach initiatives being held in Japan in recent months.
10 Email from Sugio Furuya. September 23, 2021.