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Editorial: Japan top court asbestos ruling gives hope for widespread compensation

Japan's Supreme Court has ruled that the central government and certain construction materials manufacturers are liable for damages sought by plaintiffs over diseases workers developed after breathing in asbestos at construction sites.

    The ruling is a victory for the majority of plaintiffs seeking compensation. Some 20,000 people in Japan are estimated to have suffered from exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibers. In response to the decision, Japan's ruling coalition has presented a settlement proposal, and it is hoped it will lead to widespread relief.

    Asbestos's low price and good fire protection properties meant it was a widely used construction material during Japan's strong economic growth period. But from the outset there were warnings of dangers of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma from breathing in asbestos particles.

    The top Court ruled that the government's failure to take appropriate action, such as requiring people handling the material to wear dust masks, even though it was aware of the need for stronger regulations, showed a marked lack of rationality.

    The court also ruled that sole proprietors, referred to in Japan as "hitori oyakata" (independent contractors serving as their "own boss"), faced the same risks as employed workers, and were therefore also eligible for compensation.

    Furthermore, the court recognized that manufacturers neglected their duty to state the dangers of asbestos in construction materials. It ruled that if there is a high possibility their products were the cause of damage to health, then they would be liable for compensation.

    The Japanese government did not ban the use of asbestos in principle until the mid-2000s, far later than in Europe and North America. In the meantime, the damage in Japan spread.

    The Japanese government lost earlier district and high court rulings in its battle with plaintiffs, but continued to fight in court. More than 900 former workers joined the lawsuits, but some 70% of them have already died.

    A project team of the ruling coalition has now compiled a proposal that the government pay settlement money to plaintiffs, and provide a benefit plan for affected people not part of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs indicated they would accept this.

    The proposal, however, does not touch on what relief measures manufacturers would provide. Part of this is down to the difficulty in determining which manufacturers' materials resulted in damage.

    Manufacturers, however, are responsible for the material's wide distribution. They should contribute funds to provide relief based on how much asbestos was in their building materials.

    Damage from asbestos has been referred to as a "silent time bomb," as health problems may surface decades after a person breathes in its particles, and by the time symptoms emerge they have often become severe. It is important to enhance consultation services and health checks.

    Asbestos is estimated to have been used in some 2.8 million private buildings in Japan, and rebuilding of structures containing it is expected to peak around 2028. It is essential that safety measures are thoroughly taken to ensure no further damage to health occurs.

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