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Saturday, July 28, 2012
Justice for all Minamata victims
An important date is approaching for people who are not officially recognized as victims of Minamata disease but have symptoms of the disease, Japan's worst industrial pollution-induced disease caused by methyl mercury contained in waste from Chisso Corp.'s factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, and Showa Denko K.K.'s factory in Kanose, Niigata Prefecture.
Tuesday (July 31) is the deadline for applying for relief measures under a 2009 special law to help unrecognized victims, which feature a lump-sum payment of ¥2.1 million and a monthly medical allowance of ¥12,900 to ¥17,700.
But the rigid conditions for allowing the application, concerning such factors as locations of residence and date of birth, fail to take into account unrecognized victims' real situation. Also many of those afflicted hesitate to file the application, fearful of prejudice and discrimination against people who suffer from Minamata disease, a neurological disorder.
In view of this, the government should not close the path for relief by sticking to the deadline, which itself is arbitrary.
In 1977, the government adopted criteria for officially recognizing victims of Minamata disease. Officially recognized victims qualify for a lump-sum payment of ¥16 million to ¥18 million and other benefits. About 3,000 people have been officially recognized as Minamata disease victims. But the criteria proved to be too strict.
Therefore, in 1995, the government introduced an ad hoc measure which does not give a recognized status to unrecognized victims but offers a lump-sum payment of ¥2.6 million and other benefits. About 10,000 people were covered by this measure.
In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that a person with certain conditions should be officially recognized as a Minamata disease victim even if their conditions do not meet the 1977 criteria.
But the government has not revised the criteria despite the top court's ruling. Instead, the government had the Diet enact the 2009 special law, also ad hoc like the 1995 measure. Although the Environment Ministry had expected that 20,000 to 30,000 people would file applications for relief, some 57,000 people have done so despite the rigid conditions.
For example, people born on or after Dec. 1, 1969, must submit scientific data on their umbilical cords, hair taken when they were newborn babies or hair from their mothers that show intake of a high concentration of methyl mercury. This requirement was imposed because Chisso stopped releasing the substance in 1968.
A June 24 medical survey of some 1,700 people by volunteer doctors and groups of Minamata disease victims showed that 504 (88 percent) of 573 people living outside designated areas and 35 (85 percent) of 41 people born on or after Dec. 1, 1969, have symptoms peculiar to Minamata disease.
On July 18, signatures of some 102,000 people calling for extension of the application deadline were submitted to the Environment Ministry. It would be unjust if the government refuses to provide relief measures for people who deserve them due to some arbitrarily imposed deadline.