Japan's Fight for Asbestos Justice 

by Sugio Furuya1



On December 11 and 12, 2013, Japanese organizations engaged in the struggle for asbestos justice operated a telephone consultation service for asbestos victims and their relatives from Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Osaka and Ehime – well-known asbestos hotspots. The service provided by the Ban Asbestos Network Japan, Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC) and the National Association of Asbestos-related Disease Victims and their Families was contacted by a total of 293 callers from all over Japan.

Japan was formerly one of the world's biggest users of asbestos; long after the use of crocidolite and amosite asbestos had been banned in other industrial countries, consumption continued in Japan. In 2005, the existence of a national epidemic of asbestos disease was finally acknowledged when major companies announced that former employees had contracted asbestos diseases. This revelation was widely covered by national and local media and became known as the Kubota Shock.

In the aftermath of the Kubota Shock, Japanese Ministries were ordered to publish available, if limited, data on the incidence of asbestos-related diseases. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare disclosed information on businesses and shipyards where asbestos-related diseases had been recognised as occupationally-caused by the Workers' Compensation Insurance Scheme. This included the name of each business /shipowner, the address, type of work conducted that caused exposure to asbestos, the duration of asbestos use, the status of the business (ongoing or closed), the number of compensated cases of each asbestos-related disease and other information. The Ministry had intended the 2005 disclosures to be a one-off service however, an aggressive campaign by civil society activists led to the reinstatement of this service in 2008 when, once again, this information was made public.

In addition, the Government enacted schemes under the Asbestos Health Hazards Relief Law intended, so it was claimed, to ensure “relief [for] asbestos victims without omission.” These provisions were intended to plug loopholes in compensation schemes which had, formerly, marginalized some of the injured, such as victims who had died before the laws came into force or who had not brought claims prior to their death. The most recent annual data on compensated cases of asbestos-related diseases and related topics were published on June 25 and on December 10, 2013 by The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare2 and on September 5, 2013 by The Environment Restoration and Conservation Agency of Japan (ERCA).3

Relevant facts gathered from government data include the following:

  • in the period 1995-2012, there were 16,235 deaths from mesothelioma of which 12,413 (76%) were acknowledged and compensated under workers' compensation insurance or government relief schemes; in 1995, only 14.1% of mesothelioma fatalities were compensated;
  • in recent years, rates of compensation have varied significantly from year to year with 70.9% of mesothelioma claims being compensated in 2005 while only 63.1% were compensated in 2012.


Data collected by campaigners for asbestos justice indicate that the patchwork of schemes for acknowledging cases of asbestos-related disease remains inadequate and that substantial numbers of victims go uncompensated. According to the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center, “relief for all asbestos victims without omission" has not been achieved. In pursuit of this objective, JOSHRC is calling for:

  • a government commitment that Ministries will continue the collection of annual data on asbestos-related claims; systematic monitoring of data and cross-checking with other sources to verify accuracy;
  • the establishment of a national mesothelioma register and public access to information contained within it;
  • consultation over the level of compensation for all asbestos victims and their families;
  • the implementation of outreach programs to target populations – i.e. construction workers and workers in other at-risk sectors as well as people who lived near asbestos processing factories, etc.
  • a timetabled plan to eradicate asbestos contamination from the infrastructure and environment in Japan.

For decades Japanese citizens have been dying in vast numbers because of a political and economic regime which encouraged the use of asbestos. Long after many countries acknowledged the risk and banned its use, the Japanese asbestos lobby maintained control of the national debate on asbestos. Although the final use of asbestos was prohibited in 2012, deaths will continue for generations to come due to past exposures and future exposures to asbestos hidden within our infrastructure. We cannot and will not be complacent – the fight for asbestos justice will continue until the day when Japan is asbestos-free and there are no more victims of asbestos.

December 18, 2013


1 Sugio Furuya is the Secretary-General of the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center:

2 The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare Reports on asbestos cases for 2012:
June 25, 2013 report: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/houdou/0000031636.html
December 10, 2013 report: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/stf/houdou/0000031628.html

3 ERCA 2012 Annual Report: http://www.erca.go.jp/asbestos/relief/uketsuke/pdf/toukei_24.pdf



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