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Court rejects damages claim by ex-fishermen over US H-bomb tests

This Aug. 27, 2011 photo shows Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. The cove-like, darker-color sea area, center, is where the crater, created by the 1954 detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the United States, is located, with coral reefs deeply gouged. (Kyodo)

KOCHI, Japan (Kyodo) -- A Japanese court rejected on Friday a damages suit filed by former fishermen and their families who allege the state hid key records showing they were exposed to radiation in hydrogen bomb tests the United States conducted in 1954 in the Pacific.

The Kochi District Court acknowledged the plaintiffs were exposed to radiation in the tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands but denied the state's liability.

"We cannot conclude that the state persistently gave up providing support and conducting health surveys to hide the radiation exposure," said Presiding Judge Osamu Nishimura.

It is the first ruling on a lawsuit seeking damages from the state over the tests, according to the plaintiffs.

Morimitsu Kajihara, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told reporters they plan to appeal the ruling to a higher court, saying, "We can't accept the decision which didn't acknowledge the (state's) responsibility for neglecting the fishermen."

A total of 45 plaintiffs -- former fishermen in Kochi Prefecture and families of deceased fishermen -- filed the lawsuit in 2016, seeking damages amounting to around 65 million yen ($578,000).

The plaintiffs claimed they suffered emotional distress as they lost a chance to seek damages from the United States due to expiration of the statute of limitations since the Japanese government only disclosed radiation records on Japanese vessels operating around the test sites on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands after 60 years.

They also said the state failed in its responsibility to investigate the matter and provide help to the affected, subsequently depriving them of a chance to receive proper treatment.

The state argued it did not hide the documents and called on the court to reject the damages claims.

Between March and May of 1954 when the United States conducted six hydrogen bomb tests, about 550 Japanese fishing boats operated around the area.

Kazuma Masumoto, an 81-year-old plaintiff who was 17 at the time, recalled that when he arrived in Tokyo on his tuna boat back from the Bikini Atoll, he saw the entire catch disposed of as well as a radiometer exceeding its limit when he was checked.

But Japan stopped investigations into the boats in December 1954 and the Japanese tuna fishing boat Fukuryu Maru No. 5, which was in the fallout zone and saw one of its 23-man crew die months later due to acute radiation sickness, became the sole vessel officially recognized as affected.

Japan and the United States struck a deal under which the United States paid $2 million for the injuries and damage sustained as a result of the 1954 nuclear tests without admitting liability. The payment was also agreed on as a "full settlement" of any claims against the United States over the issue.

Matashichi Oishi, an 84-year-old former crew member on the vessel, also known as Lucky Dragon No. 5, said that the state sought to "cover up" the real issue by instead bringing into public view the Fukuryu Maru No. 5 as an obvious reminder of radiation exposure.

According to the complaint, government officials in 1986 told a parliamentary committee they were unable to find documents on ships other than the Fukuryu Maru that had been affected by the nuclear tests.

The health ministry, however, released in 2014 records of a radiation survey conducted on 556 vessels, and asserted that no ships were exposed to radiation levels that could damage health.

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