Wider Minamata relief needed

The Supreme Court’s Third Petty Bench, in a 5-0 ruling April 16, upheld a ruling by the Fukuoka High Court that posthumously recognized a woman as a victim of Minamata disease, an industrial pollution-induced paralysis of the central nervous system. Chie Mizoguchi, a resident of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, applied for recognition in 1974, but died in 1977 at age 77. Not until 1995 did the Kumamoto prefectural government officially turn down her application.

The top court said that a court should consider the particular conditions of a potential Minamata disease sufferer regardless of the government’s strict criteria. The ruling should be praised for stressing the importance of relief for potential sufferers.

Still, it is difficult to predict that more people like Mizoguchi will easily receive recognition as Minamata disease victims, because the burden on them or their bereaved families to collect medical documents and testimony and to go to court is onerous.

The main symptoms of the disease, a methyl-mercury poisoning, include a sensation disorder in the limbs, motor ataxia, narrowing visual field, a speech impediment and difficulty in hearing.

In and after 1969, a person with even a single symptom was officially recognized as a victim and received a one-time allowance of ¥10 million to ¥18 million and medical allowances from the polluter, Chisso Corp. or Showa Denko KK. But the Environment Agency in 1977 adopted strict criteria that said a sensation disorder must be accompanied by other symptoms if one is to be recognized as a victim. Fewer than 3,000 people have been officially recognized as Minamata disease victims.

The Supreme Court ruled that no scientific evidence indicates that Minamata disease victims with only a sensation disorder do not exist and that, even in the absence of other symptoms, there is room to recognize a person as a Minamata disease victim by examining evidence including the person’s life history and epidemiological distribution. On this basis, Mizoguchi, who only had a sensation disorder in the limbs, was recognized as a victim. But the ruling did not invalidate the government’s 1977 criteria.

To give relief to potential Minamata disease sufferers, the Murayama administration in 1995 adopted an ad hoc step, which covered some 11,000 people with a one-time allowance of ¥2.6 million. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that a person with even a single symptom of methyl-mercury poisoning should be recognized as a Minamata disease victim if he or she meets certain conditions. But the 1977 criteria are still in force.

In 2009, a special law took effect to give a one-time allowance of ¥2.1 million to potential Minamata disease sufferers. Some 65,000 people applied by the July 2012 deadline. But many people feared prejudice against sufferers of the disease and did not apply.

Tens of thousands of potential Minamata disease sufferers are believed to exist. By taking into consideration the April 16 Supreme Court ruling, the central government should loosen its criteria to extend relief to more sufferers.