A lot of the news coverage for Kazuo Hara’s award-winning 2018 documentary, “Sennan Asbestos Disaster,” noted two aspects of the production that had nothing to do with its content. The first was that the film was a “return to form” for the then-72-year-old director, who tends to cover subjects involving confrontation.
The second was the film’s length: 3½ hours, which, compared to works by American documentarian Frederick Wiseman or China’s Wang Bing, isn’t particularly tortuous. The long running time was, in fact, intrinsic to the nature of the story Hara wanted to tell about the decade-long legal battle between the residents of Sennan, Osaka Prefecture, and the Japanese government.
The plaintiffs demanded compensation for the pain and suffering they experienced due to the asbestos factories in their neighborhood. Though the carcinogenic building material was first regulated in 1975 and a partial ban had been in effect since 1995, a total ban was not implemented until 2012. The lawsuit was filed in 2006 on behalf of 31 people — some workers at the Sennan asbestos factories, others nearby residents — many of whom were already seriously ill with lung diseases associated with asbestos exposure.
The film’s length also highlights an important aspect of the case itself, which was that plaintiffs died as the trials dragged on and Hara, who filmed while the case progressed, profiled several of the victims with the knowledge they would never live to see the end of the case.
That’s because the case was continually drawn out due to the distinct character of Japanese jurisprudence. Though lower courts mostly found in favor of the plaintiffs, the government would, as a matter of course, appeal, thus extending the victims’ suffering. The viewer endures the frustration of being denied satisfaction along with those who endured it in real time. The Sennan residents eventually won in the Supreme Court, but by that point bitterness overwhelmed any feeling of victory. They had wasted too much of what was left of their lives.
This element is missing from the media coverage of the May 17 Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of four regional groups suing the government over its neglect in protecting construction workers from asbestos. The court mentioned that the state had known of the dangers of asbestos as early as 1975 but did not implement safety measures, such as requiring workers who handle asbestos to wear protective masks. The judges decided that both the state and manufacturers of building materials were liable for damages. Subsequently, the government owned up to its responsibility, prompting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to offer an apology to everyone who has suffered from asbestos-related diseases. The government is now working on a system for providing compensation to patients, and not just those who were party to lawsuits.
But to anyone reading these dispatches it might seem that the government, as well as the industries that ignored the known dangers of asbestos, were finally forced by the Supreme Court to face the truth. The government’s defense was that it is only liable for company employees in accordance with the Industrial Safety and Health Law and not for freelance and self-employed construction workers. In the Sennan case, the government claimed there was no real evidence that the residents’ illnesses were due to asbestos. In both situations, judges would rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, but then the government appealed and the whole process would start over again.
The Asahi Shimbun’s report on the May 17 decision said that the government was responsible because they ignored the sharp increase in lung diseases among people working around asbestos well before they implemented any law to curb its use, but the newspaper doesn’t say that it was the appeal structure that allowed the government to postpone a reckoning until they couldn’t any longer.
Editorials in the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun were adamant in their opinions that the Supreme Court ruled correctly. Yomiuri even said that the danger of asbestos “was established a long time ago,” and that the government was clearly negligent by not passing laws to protect workers from asbestos until 2004. Nihon Keizai Shimbun said that manufacturers of building materials containing asbestos are just as responsible as the government since for many years they didn’t label their products as being dangerous. These companies, or, at least, those still in business, should contribute to the compensation in line with their respective market shares. However, the only acknowledgement in either editorial that it was bureaucratic protocol that delayed the final admission for so long (“70% of the plaintiffs are dead”) is Yomiuri’s general observation that damages caused by bad medicine or environmental pollution are compounded over time as the government neglects to address underlying causes, though they don’t specifically mention the government’s reflexive reaction to attendant lawsuits fought over the course of multiple administrations. It is not so much the fault of specific officials, but rather the official mindset that keeps this protocol in place.
The most maddening scene in Hara’s movie shows the plaintiffs, after winning their case in a lower court, laying siege to the relevant government ministry to demand that it not appeal the verdict yet again. The bureaucrats ignore them.
It’s a predictable pattern that the press rarely discusses, which is why only a movie like Hara’s can show how this happens again and again, whether it’s about liability for tainted blood products, the systemic discrimination surrounding Hansen’s disease or lawsuits related to not one, but two regional outbreaks of Minamata disease. Hara, in fact, addressed one of the Minamata-related lawsuits in his latest film, “Minamata Mandala,” which follows the same structure as “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” and runs more than six hours. That sounds about right given that Minamata victims have been fighting the authorities since the 1950s.
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