Minamata disease still an issue

Niigata’s municipal government has recently recognized two men as victims of Minamata disease, the mercury-poisoning disease symbolizing postwar industrial pollution, for the first time since March 1985. The Kumamoto prefectural government has also recognized a man as a Minamata disease victim; its first acknowledgment since April 1999. These decisions show that local governments have resumed a procedure to officially recognize Minamata disease victims following a period of confusion.

That confusion was caused by the existence of two criteria used for recognizing victims of the disease. The central government’s criterion issued in 1977 stipulates that a person suffering from a combination of mercury-poisoning symptoms such as sensory disturbance and visual field constriction can be recognized as a Minamata disease victims. In 2004, however, the Supreme Court ruled that a person with only a single symptom should also be recognized as a Minamata disease victim if certain conditions are met.

Caught between the two criteria, local panels for Minamata disease victim recognition have been refusing to hold the recognition procedure. In Kumamoto Prefecture, the panel resumed work only at the strong request of the prefectural governor. Meanwhile, the Niigata panel did not recognize one of its three applicants as a Minamata disease victim, though a local doctor says that this person may have been recognized under the Supreme Court’s criterion. Aware of the impasse caused by the existence of the two criteria, the Niigata prefectural governor and the Niigata mayor have said that they would like to work out their own criteria to recognize Minamata disease victims.

A couple in their 80s in Higashi Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, whose recognition appeal has been pending for 34 years before the Kumamoto panel, plans to file a lawsuit, in which the 1977 criterion is certain to become an issue. The central government must help solve the Minamata disease recognition issue by starting in earnest the work of writing a new criterion, one that takes into consideration the 2004 Supreme Court ruling.