The Osaka District Court dismissed a class-action suit seeking damages that had been filed by 151 bereaved family members of 31 South Korean nationals who were exposed to the atomic bomb in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945 and subsequently returned to the Korean Peninsula.
The court cited the expiration of the statute of limitations for claiming damages as the reason for dismissing the plaintiffs' claims.
The ruling aligns with the Japanese government's reversal of its policy on compensation for "hibakusha" -- or A-bomb victims -- abroad in recent years, and threatens to shut down all paths to recourse for the victims.
For some 30 years, overseas hibakusha were unable to obtain the same kind of support that hibakusha in Japan were eligible for. Until a notice issued by the then Ministry of Health and Welfare stating that hibakusha would be cut off from medical allowances if they moved abroad was rescinded in 2003, overseas hibakusha were ineligible for medical stipends and other assistance.
The Japanese Supreme Court in 2007 ruled the former health ministry notice illegal, at which point the health minister indicated the ministry's policy that going forward, it would compensate overseas hibakusha or their bereaved families if they filed complaints. The government reached settlements with approximately 6,000 people, providing each person 1.1 million yen in compensation.
In the fall of 2016, however, the Japanese government did an about-face and began to fight lawsuits brought by some hibakusha and their families. The basis for the change in position, the government claimed, was that the statute of limitations had expired for lawsuits filed 20 years or more after a hibakusha's death, according to a Civil Code provision.
In the latest case, the Osaka District Court ruled according to the reasoning put forth by the central government. However, there are exceptions to the statute of limitations. Precedents that say that the application of the statute of limitations can be restricted "in cases where the execution of rights is difficult, and where the situation is in significant violation of justice and fairness" have been set in the courts. And in the case of some bereaved families who reached settlements with the government in the past, their statute of limitations had expired by the time they filed the lawsuits.
The Japanese government has explained that it wasn't until spring 2016 that it realized the expiration of the statute of limitations was applicable to overseas hibakusha, and apologized for the time it took to realize this. But the gap in the pre-2016 and post-2016 treatment of overseas hibakusha and their families is unfair.
Moreover, the plaintiffs in the most recent case are bereaved family members of hibakusha who passed away at a time when they were unable to receive any kind of Japanese government assistance or compensation due to the aforementioned illegal health ministry notice. It's not hard to imagine how difficult it would have been for people to file a lawsuit with the Japanese courts before the Supreme Court ruled that the notice was illegal. Shouldn't such cases be considered exceptions to the statute of limitations?
The plaintiffs view the statute of limitations as a high bar to overcome, and say they will carefully consider whether to appeal. So far, the government has refused to settle with around 600 of the approximately 930 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits with the Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki district courts. The "treatment of all hibakusha as hibakusha, no matter where they are" constitutes the spirit of the Atomic Bomb Survivors' Assistance Act. If the courts cannot save the hibakusha, perhaps it's time to explore political solutions.