Japanese Government Faces Citizen Lawsuit

As regular readers of this column are aware, Japan has been slow to act in asbestos matters; a comprehensive ban was not passed until 2006, and recent discoveries in Tokyo buildings show that there is still a lot asbestos to deal with. In the meantime, Japanese workers, like those in Australia, South Africa, and the U.K., suffer from abnormally high rates of mesothelioma. In Tokyo, 160 of those workers and the families they left behind are now planning to file suit against the government they say “failed to take due action to prevent health damage related to exposure to asbestos.” The leader of this group, 78-year-old Kazuo Miyajima, is a retired electrician who is suffering from asbestos-related lung cancer. He points out that asbestos continued to be used legally in Japan long after the World Health Organization had published its findings on the hazards of asbestos, and that the Japanese government should have taken action much sooner than it did. Since Japan offers universal, single-payer, government-funded health care to all of its citizens, medical care for these asbestos victims is not the issue like it is in the U.S. Nonetheless, these patients have suffered tremendously, and families have lost contributing members.

Each one of the 160 families involved in the lawsuit is seeking compensation in the amount of 35 million yen, (about US$340,000). It is not as if the Japanese government has turned its back on these victims; most of the plaintiffs are officially acknowledged as suffering from occupational disease and are already receiving monetary compensation in accordance with Japanese labor laws. In addition, families who have lost a member to asbestos disease continue to receive payments equivalent to the deceased member’s government pension. The object of the lawsuit is to place responsibility on a government whom the plaintiffs allege could have prevented many illnesses and deaths had it issued warning against the dangers of asbestos. In addition to the group of 160, another group of 38 construction workers are filing their own lawsuit in a Yokohama District Court. All the lawsuits are being targeted at Japan’s Heath, Labor, and Welfare Ministry; the Tokyo suit is believed by Japanese legal experts to be the largest such lawsuit ever filed in that country.