The Diet enacted a new law Wednesday that expands relief to victims of Minamata disease by loosening the redress requirements for one of the worst industrial pollution cases in Japanese history.
The legislation, one of the key bills Prime Minister Taro Aso intended to pass this session, broadens the range of patients entitled to receive government relief for the first time since 1995. The law cleared the Lower House on July 3.
According to the Environment Ministry, the new law will offer relief to roughly 20,000 of the 30,000 patients who have applied, although the exact amount of the funds to be distributed has yet to be decided. The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc has suggested ¥1.5 million per patient; the Democratic Party of Japan is seeking ¥3 million.
At a press conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said he was satisfied with the legislation but acknowledged the government needs to listen to opponents of the bill.
“We are glad to be able to fulfill the Diet’s role (in enacting the bill),” Kawamura said. “However, we’ve also heard that certain patient groups are against some portions of the bill. As the government, I believe we need to work with these people and do our utmost so they can reach a full understanding of the object of the bill.”
Minamata disease, a neurological disorder contracted by eating seafood from waters contaminated with mercury-tainted industrial waste discharged into a bay by Chisso Corp., was first recognized by researchers in 1956, when residents of the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, began dying.
But the disease, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands to suffer from crippling disabilities, was not officially recognized by the government until 1968.
The new law expands the scope of recognized disorders to cover those suffering from four types of symptoms, including sensory impairment.
But it will also allow Chisso, which caused the infamous disaster, to split into two entities, a decision that critics say will allow it to dissolve the holding company after completing the compensation payments and put an end to the liability saga.
Hideki Sato, chairman of one of the Minamata disease patient groups that spoke at Wednesday’s press conference, slammed the government’s decision.
“As a Japanese, I’m embarrassed at the mere fact that this law has been passed,” he said. “We will be fighting the case in court.”
Hideo Ikoma, a Minamata disease patient who also attended the press conference, said he felt most of the resentment was being caused by the decision to let Chisso split up.
“I think it’s Chisso’s duty to take responsibility and continue to provide reparations to the victims,” he said.