The Supreme Court upheld on Tuesday a high court ruling that posthumously recognized a woman as a victim of Minamata disease, an industrial-related malady caused by mercury poisoning.
The top court’s five-justice Third Petty Bench, led by Justice Itsuro Terada, handed down the decision on a lawsuit filed by relatives of Chie Mizoguchi, who argued that the Kumamoto Prefectural Government unfairly rejected her claim of having the disease.
Mizoguchi, a resident of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, died in 1977 at the age of 77.
It is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of someone seeking recognition as a Minamata disease victim or their kin.
The same panel, in a separate ruling on a similar suit filed by a woman in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, overturned an Osaka High Court ruling that rejected her demand to be recognized as having Minamata disease and therefore eligible for aid.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the high court, ordering it to resume deliberations on the case.
In February 2012, the Fukuoka High Court ordered the Kumamoto Prefectural Government to recognize Mizoguchi posthumously as a Minamata disease victim and invalidated the central government’s criteria for recognizing such patients, overruling a lower court decision that turned down the relatives’ demand.
The prefecture filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
The top court’s decision on Mizoguchi stood immediately and she will be recognized as a Minamata disease victim, officials said.
In contrast, last April, the Osaka High Court overturned a lower court ruling that backed the other woman’s demand to be recognized as a sufferer of Minamata disease and eligible for aid.
The focal point at the Supreme Court for both cases was whether the government’s criteria for recognition of Minamata disease victims, adopted in 1977, are reasonable.
The criteria set tougher standards to recognize victims, requiring a combination of a sensation disorder plus separate symptoms.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court did not touch on the reasonability of the 1977 standards.
But the court noted there is no scientific proof that all people with Minamata disease have developed a combination of the sensation disorder plus separate symptoms.
Minamata disease is known as one of Japan’s worst pollution-related maladies. It was caused by mercury-laced waste water released into Minamata Bay by Shin-Nippon Chisso Hiryo K.K., which was later renamed Chisso Corp.
Minamata disease paralyzes the human central nervous system and causes birth defects. The government recognized it as a pollution-caused disease in September 1968.
The government introduced redress measures for uncertified patients in 2010, featuring a lump sum of ¥2.1 million and monthly medical allowances, for which some 65,000 people have applied.
Compared with this, the number of officially recognized patients is only around 3,000, of whom three-quarters have died.
Over the years, supporters for the patients have demanded that the government conduct thorough investigations into the reality of the spread of the disease, but such demands have been refused.