In a legal first, the Supreme Court on Tuesday declared South Korean survivors of the 1945 U.S atomic bombing of Hiroshima as fully eligible for government-sponsored medical subsidies — a landmark victory for hibakusha living overseas as they seek to secure recognition of their rights.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry responded by saying it will “take the ruling seriously” and pledged to conduct a swift policy overhaul to subsidize medical bills for an estimated 4,000 overseas hibakusha worldwide in accordance with existing law.

The top court upheld a decision last year by the Osaka High Court, which ruled that Osaka Prefecture acted illegally in 2011 when it refused to reimburse the Korean-based survivors for their medical expenses.

The prefecture said it was acting in accordance with the central government’s long-standing policy that hibakusha living abroad do not qualify for medical subsidies designated by the Atomic Bomb Survivors’ Assistance Act because they are not receiving treatment in Japan.

Noting that the law has no geographical clause, Chief Justice Kiyoko Okabe ruled that Osaka’s refusal to deny the Koreans subsidies solely based on the fact that they received treatment outside Japan “runs counter to” the principle of the survivors’ assistance act, which aims to address health problems of hibakusha “no matter where they live.”

“The Japanese government and Osaka Prefecture never agreed to pay our medical bills until the Supreme Court handed down the ruling. I hope they will demonstrate to us from now on that they are capable of appreciating how precious human lives are,” Lee Hong-hyun, one of the three plaintiffs, said in a statement after the ruling.

Lee, 69, was exposed to radiation while in his mother’s womb. He suffered from kidney disease and had a transplant in 1990.

The Supreme Court ruling resolves the last remaining example of major discrimination facing overseas hibakusha. Over the years the state has rectified, step by step, its discriminatory treatment of them whenever rebuked by the judiciary.

Lawyers said the ruling will also affect similar lawsuits currently in the Hiroshima and Fukuoka high courts, in which survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings now living in South Korea and the United States are appealing district court rulings denying them full medical expenses.

Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki prefectures, according to the lawyers, are now legally bound to rescind their initial refusals to compensate the plaintiffs’ medical bills.

Under the survivors’ assistance act, hibakusha in Japan are eligible for government coverage of all medical expenses incurred by diseases and injuries they suffered from the bombings. The government, however, previously maintained the act does not apply to survivors overseas, instead granting them up to ¥300,000 of annual subsidies outside of the law’s framework.

Many overseas hibakusha argue the amount is insufficient and that their costs should be met in full in line with the law.

During the Osaka High Court trial, the Osaka Prefectural Government asserted that the law cannot be applied to survivors overseas due to difficulties in scrutinizing the “validity” of medical treatment they received abroad and verifying the bills they paid. The high court dismissed this argument as flimsy, pointing out that the law is meant to help hibakusha “regardless of their financial ability and nationality.”

In 2002, in response to a class lawsuit filed by South Korea-based hibakusha, the Osaka High Court judged as illegal a government notice declaring survivors would forfeit the eligibility to receive monthly health allowances after moving out of Japan. The notice was scrapped the following year.

Later, survivors were granted the right to apply for recognition without even visiting Japan. It became possible in 2008 for them to apply for hibakusha certificates and in 2010 to be recognized as having bomb-related diseases while remaining overseas.

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