The government’s refusal to provide health-care benefits to hibakusha living abroad is illegal, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a landmark decision.
The ruling finalizes the government’s obligation to pay compensation to atomic-bomb survivors overseas. It is the first time the top court has declared a government order illegal and upheld a ruling mandating the payment of damages.
The Supreme Court’s First Petty Bench turned down the government’s appeal and upheld a 2005 high court decision that ordered it to pay a combined ¥48 million in damages to 40 South Koreans who were exposed to radiation in the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The Koreans were exposed while being forced to work as conscripts during the war.
Justice Norio Wakui, who presided over the case, declared that an instruction issued in 1974 by the then Health and Welfare Ministry telling local governments to limit distribution of government support only to atomic-bomb survivors living in Japan was illegal.
“The plaintiffs were forced to suffer special health problems arising from their exposure to radiation and to lead uncomfortable lives,” Wakui said.
The top court also ruled the 1974 instruction illegal in February, when it settled a lawsuit filed by atomic-bomb survivors in Brazil. In that decision, Hiroshima Prefecture was ordered to pay the plaintiffs the health-care benefits they were entitled to.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court was ruling on the government’s bid to appeal the Hiroshima High Court’s ruling on the Korean hibakusha that was handed down on Jan. 19, 2005. The ruling ordered the government to pay ¥1.2 million in damages to each of the 40 plaintiffs.
The high court dismissed demands by the plaintiffs that the government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. pay compensation for using the people as forced laborers and for unpaid wages, citing the statute of limitations.
The high court determined the government is liable for financially supporting atomic-bomb survivors even if they are abroad, saying the 1974 ministry instruction was illegal.
The plaintiffs had demanded ¥440 million — ¥11 million each — from the government and MHI for being forced to work at a Mitsubishi factory in Hiroshima and for being exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.
Many of the 40 plaintiffs have already died, but the court battle was continued by their relatives.
According to the high court, the Koreans were forcibly taken from the Korean Peninsula — then under Japanese colonial rule — to Hiroshima in 1944 and forced to work for MHI. They returned to what became South Korea on their own after the war.
The Hiroshima District Court rejected the suit in March 1999, but the high court reversed that decision.