Mixed Messages in Japan
Developments in Japan over the last fortnight suggest that a great deal of confusion persists in government departments over the issue of state-awarded compensation for asbestos victims. Even as new categories of asbestos claimants become eligible for government benefits, other victims face protracted legal battles to win damages from the State.
The Good News
At the beginning of March, the Japanese Government extended its coverage for asbestos victims when it awarded compensation for the first non-occupational case of asbestosis to Mrs. Tsurutani, the widow of 69-year old Kiyokazu Tsurutani. Mr. Tsurutani, who died in September 2010 a year after being diagnosed, had lived near the asbestos-processing factory owned by the Kubota Corporation in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.1 Post-mortem tests conducted on a lung sample showed 58 million fibers of asbestos per gram of dry lung tissue, ten times the allowable level.2 Addressing a press conference in Amagasaki on Wednesday (March 2, 2011), Mrs. Tsurutani welcomed the news received on February 24 that the government would provide payments to cover her late husband's past medical expenses; at the same time, she reported that the Kubota Corporation had not responded to her request for compensation.
The eligibility for this government benefit is a consequence of changes made in July 2010 to a relief scheme for non-occupational asbestos victims which had originally only covered people with mesothelioma and lung cancer; last year, victims with asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening were added to the scheme. The amendment was a result of recommendations made by the asbestos sub-committee of the Central Environment Council.
The Bad News
On February 22, 2011, The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced its rejection of a proposal made by Judge Jun Miura to settle asbestos cancer cases pending in the Osaka High Court.3 Explaining this decision, a government spokesperson said:
''The ruling of first instance that recognized state responsibility contains legal problems that we cannot overlook in regard to arguments on responsibility and damages.
These proceedings follow a ruling in May 2010 by the Osaka District Court which awarded 435 million yen (U.S. $5.3 million) to 23 former workers for asbestos-related illnesses but rejected claims from 3 local people who had suffered environmental exposure to asbestos.
March 3, 2011
1 Man close to asbestos-using plant subjected to legal relief in Japan. March 2, 2011.
2 The Japanese Ministry of the Environment is tentatively using the level of 5 million fibers per gram of dry lung tissue as an exposure indicator for non-occupational asbestosis cases; this same level is set in the Helsinki critera as an indicator for asbestos-related lung cancer.
3 State refuses court-proposed settlement in Osaka asbestos suits. February 23, 2011.