New burden for Minamata victims

The Environment Ministry on March 7 adopted a new policy concerning official recognition of people as sufferers of Minamata disease — Japan’s most serious pollution-induced illness — which is caused by organic mercury.

At first glance, the new policy appears to relax criteria for the recognition of Minamata disease sufferers, but this is not the case. It contains severe conditions that will likely preclude it from helping a large number of victims. The government should change the standards for official recognition so more Minamata victims, who have suffered greatly, can receive much needed financial assistance.

The new policy follows an April 2013 Supreme Court ruling that stated people who exhibit only “sensation” disorders could be recognized as Minamata disease victims. The ruling is much less strict than the criteria the government adopted in 1977 — which say that people must display sensation disorders as well as other symptoms, including reduction of their field of vision, to be recognized as Minamata disease victims.

The Environment Ministry’s new policy says people who display only sensation disorders in their limbs can be recognized as Minamata disease victims but it includes conditions that will impose a heavy burden on latent Minamata disease victims. Those who wish to be recognized as Minamata victims must show documentation that can prove the period in which they ate fish contaminated with organic mercury, how they obtained such fish, their dietary habits and their family and occupational history. They also must also document the level of mercury concentration in their bodies at the time they ate the contaminated fish.

Nearly six decades have passed since the first case of Minamata disease was discovered in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1956. Obviously it would be extremely difficult for latent Minamata disease victims to prepare such documents, so it is unlikely that under the new policy a large number of Minamata disease sufferers would be recognized and given relief measures.

Under the 1977 criteria, 2,978 people have been officially recognized as Minamata disease victims. They are entitled to a one-time allowance of ¥10 million to ¥18 million plus medical allowances. In 1995, the government decided to give a uniform ¥2.6 million one-time allowance to people who had developed certain symptoms after eating contaminated fish. Some 11,000 people received relief under this measure. To expand the scope of relief, a Minamata disease special measure law to provide uniform ¥2.1 million allowance to unrecognized latent victims — many of whom are now in their 40s and 50s with aged parents struggling to care for them — went into force in 2009. But even these measures failed to cover all victims due to rigid application conditions.

A major problem with the Environment Ministry’s new policy is that it still adheres to the 1977 criteria despite the April 2013 Supreme Court ruling as well as a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that people who have just one symptom should also be recognized as Minamata disease victims if certain other conditions are met.

The Environmental Ministry should keep in mind that from 1969, even people who only displayed a single symptom were officially recognized as a Minamata disease victims. But in 1977, the then Environment Agency adopted the current strict criteria. The Environment Ministry should drop its unreasonably severe requirements for recognition so that all victims of this horrible disease — who are suffering from deteriorating health — can get a desperately needed measure of financial relief.