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More than 2,000 unrecognized victims of Minamata disease who had filed damages lawsuits against Chisso Corp. and the central and Kumamoto prefectural governments reached basic agreements with the defendants March 29 to settle the lawsuits under a court-mediated plan. Each unrecognized victim will receive a lump-sump payment of ¥2.1 million and a monthly medical allowance of ¥12,900 to ¥17,700. The association of plaintiffs will also receive ¥2.95 billion.

The central government plans to incorporate the same terms into a separate relief measure under a 2009 special law to help unrecognized suffers. The two measures are expected to cover more than 35,000 victims — a great step forward in relieving victims of Japan’s worst industrial pollution-induced disease caused by organic mercury released by Chisso. But the central and Kumamoto prefectural governments and Chisso must realize that the measures do not cover all victims.

The central government’s criteria adopted in 1977 to certify Minamata disease victims are so strict that many unrecognized victims had to rely on lawsuits. In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s administration worked out a political settlement that included lump-sum payments of ¥2.6 million each for some 10,000 unrecognized victims. Still many lawsuits followed. In 2004, the Supreme Court used less strict criteria to help unrecognized suffers. One of the things the central government must do is align its criteria with those adopted by the top court.

The latest agreement in principle excludes people born after November 1969. The geographical areas covered by the agreement are also limited. The central and prefectural governments should adopt a flexible approach to help as many latent victims as possible. Many such victims around the Yatsushiro Sea, into which Chisso’s organic mercury was released, have not come forward, fearing stigmatization. The central and Kumamoto governments must carry out a comprehensive medical examination of local residents. As the polluter, Chisso must fully shoulder its legal and ethical responsibility to compensate all the victims of its actions.

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