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Japanese court rejects Minamata disease recognition for 7 patients

Supporters of the plaintiffs show a piece of paper with "unjust ruling" written on it, in front of the Kumamoto District Court in the city of Kumamoto on March 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Sonoko Nakamura)

KUMAMOTO -- A group of seven Minamata disease patients had their demand to be legally recognized as suffering from the condition rejected by a court here on March 30.

    The complainants, who live in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures and are aged between 62 and 69, had filed suit with the Kumamoto District Court against the prefectural governments to seek Minamata disease recognition, claiming that they suffered methylmercury poisoning in the womb or in childhood.

    However, "the possibility that their symptoms are caused by other ailments cannot be denied," Presiding Judge Michie Sato said while handing down the ruling.

    The plaintiffs, all members of the Minamata disease mutual aid association for patients yet to be officially recognized, intend to appeal. Born around 1956, the year the disease was officially confirmed, they spent their childhood in the early stages of the environmental pollution responsible for the disease. A spate of patients from that period were confirmed with severe symptoms of the disease resulting from mass industrial poisoning. The plaintiffs also applied to the prefectural governments for recognition between 2002 and 2005 based on Japan's industrial pollution health damage compensation law, claiming symptoms including sensory impairments such as limb numbness. However, their applications were rejected in 2015 and 2016.

    The complainants asserted that they were born in regions including the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, where many patients have been confirmed, and that they have relatives who are recognized patients. They claimed that they "ate a lot of fish (contaminated with mercury) in early childhood."

    Judge Sato denied that most of the plaintiffs had consumed highly concentrated mercury. She also pointed out that Minamata disease symptoms typically manifest "somewhere between a few months and several years" after consuming mercury. While the complainants insisted that they had developed symptoms in early childhood, the court dismissed the claim, saying, "They obtained findings of sensory impairment from doctors two to three decades after stopping consuming mercury, and that does not match the mechanism of Minamata disease development."

    Plaintiff group head Hideki Sato, 67, said at a news conference after the ruling, "I've been bothered by various symptoms since my early childhood, but in fact, I didn't realize it was Minamata disease. Nobody told me what the symptoms were. We'll fight until the end."

    Following the decision, both the Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectural governments issued statements that their assertions had been accepted by the court, while noting that they were unaware of all of the details yet.

    Separately, the plaintiffs had filed a suit against the Japanese government, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Chisso Corp., which caused the methylmercury contamination, but their final appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court earlier in March.

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Muneoka, Kagoshima Bureau, and Takaharu Nishi, Minamata Local Bureau)

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