Top court backs state-sponsored health care for A-bomb survivors

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld lower court decisions that ordered the Health and Welfare Ministry to provide special medical coverage granted to survivors of the atomic attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to a partially paralyzed Nagasaki woman who did not meet government criteria for such coverage.

By rejecting the ministry’s appeal against a 1997 high court ruling that stated 58-year-old Hideko Matsuya was a victim of radiation sickness, the top court ruling effectively widens the door for state-covered medical care given to hibakusha, survivors of the bombings.

Tuesday’s ruling marks the first time the Supreme Court has issued a decision regarding the Health Ministry’s process of designating atomic bomb-related illnesses. Concluding a case that lasted almost 12 years after Matsuya first filed suit in September 1988, the top court threw out the state’s appeal without even hearing the opening arguments.

The Fukuoka High Court ruled in November 1997 that the Health and Welfare Ministry had mistakenly decreed that Matsuya did not meet the government criteria.

“It can be presumed that Matsuya suffered from decreased immunity to illness as a result of atomic bomb radiation exposure,” the court said. She also won the legal battle against the government at the Nagasaki District Court in May 1993.

The Supreme Court’s Third Petty Bench supported this claim, pointing to such symptoms as hair loss and expanded damage to the brain as being linked to radiation exposure.

“This is not just my victory. It is a victory for all atomic bomb victims,” said Matsuya, who suffers paralysis on her right side. She was in the office of the Nagasaki Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers when she heard the news of Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling.

“It makes me angry that they drew this out for 12 years,” she said, commenting on the ministry’s continued refusal to recognize her claims. Matsuya’s voice shook as she said, “I pray for (similar) victory for the other three victims who fought with me while (they) are alive.”

However, unlike in lower court rulings, the top court also expressed understanding of the state’s current methods for designating radiation survivors, a process that critics say is “too mechanical.”

This effectively increases the burden of proof on the part of the plaintiffs in such cases, some observers said.

The Supreme Court said, “there was no denying that it was still greatly questionable whether radioactivity was the reason for Matsuya’s illness.” However, it did not go as far as to overturn the high court ruling, adding that her symptoms, including hair loss, made it “hesitate to say radiation was not the cause.”

Matsuya was 3 years old and at her Nagasaki home about 2.45 km away from the hypocenter of the bomb when it was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945, exposing her to the radiation, according to the first two rulings.

A roof tile blown free by the blast fractured her skull, causing her paralysis.

She twice applied for ministry designation as a victim of atomic-bomb radiation sickness. She filed suit in September 1988 after both her applications were denied, after which she won twice. both in the 1993 Nagasaki District Court ruling and in the 1997 Fukuoka High Court ruling. To qualify for medical support under the ministry criteria, a person must have been in Hiroshima or Nagasaki at the time of the bombings, or had entered a 2-km-radius of the hypocenters within two weeks of the attacks, and can provide documented proof to this end.

Under this criteria, Matsuya, who was 2.45 km away, does not qualify.

Petitions supporting Matsuya circulated nationwide, garnering more than 1 million signatures. On Tuesday, following news of the ruling, calls of congratulations flooded the Nagasaki confederation office.

“It was a hard battle that did not allow a moment of respite,” said Naotatsu Nakamura, who heads the group of lawyers supporting Matsuya. “The ruling will lead to saving many victims suffering under the same circumstances as Ms. Matsuya.”

As of fiscal 2000, those who have radiation exposure-related illnesses, injuries or immunity problems and still require treatment qualify for 139,600 yen per month to cover medical costs. As of March, of the 297,613 holding atomic-bomb radiation medical certificates, those who qualify for such aid numbered 2,166.