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Editorial: Japan must secure financial help for asbestos victims without delay

A recently finalized court order requires building material manufacturers to compensate plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought by former construction workers in Japan who developed illnesses by inhaling asbestos at work sites. The decision came after the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the central government and eight manufacturers to challenge an earlier ruling by the Osaka High Court ordering the defendants to pay the former workers a total of some 300 million yen (about $2.86 million).

    In a similar trial, the Supreme Court finalized a lower court ruling in December 2020 that the government must pay compensation to asbestos victims. With their responsibilities established, the Japanese government and the companies should promptly begin efforts to help the victims.

    Of the 15 district and high court rulings delivered across Japan so far concerning asbestos-related lawsuits, government accountability was recognized in 14 cases. In contrast, compensation orders to material manufacturers were handed down in only eight. This is because of difficulties determining which firms' material caused asbestos-induced diseases.

    Construction workers are employed at multiple sites. Damage caused by asbestos is referred to as a "silent time bomb," and can lead to diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer developing several decades after inhalation of the fibers.

    The Osaka High Court acknowledged manufacturers' failure to put hazard labels on their products that indicate the health risks from asbestos and suggestions for protective measures. The high court then ordered the firms to pay compensation, pointing out that if the building material was a product from a manufacturer with a certain market share, it was highly possible it was used at construction sites where plaintiffs worked.

    The Supreme Court's ruling upholding the lower court's decision indicates the top court's proactive efforts to provide relief to asbestos victims.

    The hazardous nature of asbestos had been mentioned early on, but manufacturers in Japan nevertheless widely distributed it as a building material -- which is cheap and highly fire-resistant -- amid high construction demand. Furthermore, the Japanese government left the material unregulated for a long time, which allowed the damage to spread.

    While more than 900 former construction workers joined class action lawsuits nationwide, at least 600 have already passed away. In recent years, around 500 people connected to construction work annually are being recognized as suffering from health issues caused by asbestos.

    The plaintiffs have proposed the government and manufacturers set up a fund to create a system to compensate victims. They have demanded that the companies make financial contributions reflecting the amount of asbestos their products used.

    Health minister Norihisa Tamura has indicated that the government was willing to set up a forum for talks to resolve the issue, but no concrete actions have been taken. There is no time to spare to establish a redress system involving manufacturers.

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