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, while keeping a cool head as administrators,” Kunio Yanagida, a nonfiction writer, told a public meeting Saturday in Tokyo.

Yanagida was on the nine-member advisory panel to former Environment Minister Yuriko Koike that proposed in September that the government develop a new relief framework to help people who have not been officially recognized as patients under the current standards.

Koike asked the panel to study the Minamata issue on May 1, the 50th anniversary of the disease’s official recognition. The disease, which actually broke out in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, long before it was official recognized, was caused by years of discharge of mercury into Minamata Bay by Chisso Corp.

Yanagida, given his experience as a journalist covering major accidents and disasters, reiterated the panel’s proposal that the government establish a permanent organization to investigate the causes and background in cases in which fatal incidents occur and compile relief measures for victims.

The panel did not recommend revising the 1977 official recognition criteria, which require a sufferer to have a plurality of symptoms, including lack of feeling at the tips of their extremities and motor dysfunction, although the Supreme Court set more lenient criteria in 2004.

Another panel member, Masazumi Yoshii, said the Environment Ministry is reluctant to revise the recognition standards and had harsh exchanges with the panel in drafting the proposals.

“I had believed the ministry was an ally of the socially weak, and of the Minamata disease patients, but it has become an organization that is hostile to them,” said Yoshii, a former mayor of Minamata. “There will be no applicants for recognition of Minamata disease maybe in 30 years, and I cannot but think the government is just waiting for this.

“It is shameful that an advanced country like Japan cannot provide full relief and compensation to (Minamata disease) sufferers even 50 years since its official recognition,” he added.

Tsugio Kameyama, a former Supreme Court justice, said the panel members could have agreed to propose terminating the current recognition criteria, “but the criteria will remain, as there are people who were recognized as patients under them.”

He suggested the panel propose a basic direction for aiding unrecognized sufferers, saying, “We discarded the name for the substance, in a sense, and I believe the Environment Ministry will not ignore our proposals in drawing up future policies.”

But Kameyama also said, “In joining the panel, I was really shocked to know that the Minamata issue still has a long way to go before it is settled,” even 50 years after its official recognition.

Since the Supreme Court eased criteria in the 2004 ruling, more than 4,300 people have applied for official recognition and more than 1,100 noncertified patients have sued the central government, Kumamoto Prefecture and Chisso.

The panel noted Minamata victims are believed to number more than 20,000.

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