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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s statement Tuesday that the government will not appeal a July 14 Hiroshima High Court decision ruling involving 84 older victims exposed to radioactive fallout following the 1945 atomic bombing marks the end of the legal battle by radiation victims, and a complete victory for them.

In a landmark decision expected to impact similar lawsuits, the court ruled that the plaintiffs were eligible to receive support as hibakusha atomic bomb survivors even though they had been exposed to the “black rain” fallout in areas that are outside the government’s own designated boundaries for determining who is entitled to central government aid.

What was the high court’s ruling?

The court upheld a ruling by the Hiroshima District Court in July last year that recognized that although the plaintiffs were living outside an officially designated zone for A-bomb survivors eligible for state aid, they were nevertheless victims of black rain and should be considered hibakusha and receive assistance. The High Court said that radioactive rain fell in a wider area than the government’s zone and that the plaintiffs should receive the same state health benefits other hibakusha survivors are receiving.

Presiding Judge Kazuto Nishii also ruled that the possibility their health was damaged due to the atomic bomb blast could not be discounted. The court agreed with the plaintiffs’ claim they had suffered internal radiation poisoning, possibly due to eating and drinking radiation-tainted food and water.

Why did the government decide not to appeal to the Supreme Court?

Suga said that the age of the plaintiffs was a factor, and that he wanted to move quickly to assist them as many are elderly and some are ill. But there was also local political pressure on the government not to continue the legal battle.

Two days after the high court ruling, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui met with health minister Norihisa Tamura and asked the central government to abandon the appeal. Then, at a meeting between central government and prefectural and city representatives on Friday to discuss the case, the government’s position was that the court’s decision was not based on science, with Tokyo indicating that it wanted the prefecture and city to take the case to the Supreme Court despite the reluctance of Hiroshima leaders.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meets with Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki (left) and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui (second from left) in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meets with Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki (left) and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui (second from left) in Tokyo on Monday. | KYODO

But there was also public pressure to drop the case. An online petition launched by the plaintiffs that called on the government to drop the appeal had garnered 8,440 signatures as of Monday.

In the statement Tuesday, Suga said that while the government believed there were serious legal problems with the ruling, including inconsistencies with past court decisions on the health effects of the atomic bombings, it has decided not to appeal. Instead, it will begin discussions on providing the 84 plaintiffs with the same support as other hibakusha.

What were the main points of contention?

There were two main issues between the plaintiffs and the defendants, which included the central government, Hiroshima Prefecture and the city of Hiroshima. The first was over the government’s geographical requirements for being an officially designated hibakusha. The second was whether their illnesses were caused by radiation from the bomb.

In 1976, the government agreed to extend medical benefits to black rain survivors inside an oval-shaped area 19 kilometers long and 11 km wide that stretches to the northwest of the bomb’s hypocenter in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It was designated a “heavy rain” area, where radiation from the bomb fell for at least one hour after it was detonated.

Those who lived within the area were issued hibakusha health handbooks that granted them free medical treatment for 11 different radiation-related illnesses, including cancer, leukopenia and cataracts.

Health minister Norihisa Tamura (right) meets with Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui (center) at the health ministry in Tokyo on July 16. | KYODO
Health minister Norihisa Tamura (right) meets with Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui (center) at the health ministry in Tokyo on July 16. | KYODO

But such benefits did not apply to those who lived outside the designated heavy rain zone in so-called light rain areas. The designation created controversy and demands by those in the latter region to be included as hibakusha. Between 2008 and 2010, the prefecture and the city surveyed the health impacts of the bomb on local residents and drew up a new map that showed a black rain area six times larger than the one the central government was using.

Despite requests by the Hiroshima governor and mayor in 2010 to extend hibakusha benefits to those living outside the central government’s heavy rain area, Tokyo refused, citing a lack of clear scientific evidence showing illnesses outside the designated zone were caused by the bomb. In 2015, 84 residents in the excluded area launched their lawsuit, seeking recognition as hibakusha.

Today, only 70 remain, and they are between their 70s and 90s.

As of last year, there were 127,755 recognized hibakusha. Their average age was almost 84.

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