A new law offering relief to Minamata disease patients cleared the Lower House Friday, a day after the ruling and opposition camps officially agreed to loosen the eligibility requirements for patients seeking compensation.

The bill broadens the scope for the first time since 1995, when the government decided to compensate over 10,000 formerly unacknowledged patients. It will now be sent to the Upper House to be officially enacted as early as next week.

The legislation, one of the key bills Prime Minister Taro Aso hopes to get passed during the current Diet session, will offer compensation to patients with numbness in the hands and feet, or other sensory impairments of the body, mouth and tongue, as well as restricted vision.

“I’m sure there are various opinions regarding the Minamata issue, but I believe it is the best solution that can be reached now,” Democratic Party of Japan Diet affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka told reporters Friday. The DPJ has been active in handling the key bills in a move to pressure Aso, who is suffering sagging popularity, to dissolve the Lower House at an early date.

Of the estimated 30,000 people currently seeking relief, about 20,000 are expected to be eligible for some form of compensation. The amount of the lump sum to be paid has yet to be decided, with the ruling coalition suggesting ¥1.5 million, and the DPJ asking for ¥3 million per person.

The bill will also allow chemical maker Chisso Corp. — responsible for dumping mercury-tainted water into the sea and causing the outbreak of the disease — to split into two entities. Critics have protested that dissolution of the holding company after it completes the compensation payments will effectively put an end to the case.

The subsidiary will likely take over business operations.

During a news conference Thursday, writer Kunio Yanagida said the bill will obscure the government’s responsibility over the issue by limiting compensation to a purely monetary one.

“It will create a precedent for companies involved in pollution and accidents to create a separate company to dodge its responsibilities,” he said.

The disease, first acknowledged by researchers in 1956, is a neurological disorder caused by eating seafood caught from waters contaminated with mercury-containing industrial waste.

Residents of the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, first fell victim to the poisoning, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of various disabilities, as well as many cases of birth defects.

Considered one of the worst cases of industrial pollution in Japanese history, the government did not officially recognize the disease until 1968.

Indian Ocean mission

Compiled from Kyodo, Staff report

The Cabinet on Friday extended the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for another six months under a temporary law on antiterrorism campaigns.

The Cabinet endorsed a revision to the basic plan for the MSDF to extend until Jan. 15 the refueling mission in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

“The Defense Ministry will continue to do its best to eradicate international terrorism now that the refueling assistance activities by the MSDF were extended,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told a news conference.

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