Doctor who refused to lie for government supports woman in Minamata disease lawsuit

February 27, 2013

By HISATOSHI TANAKA/ Staff Writer

A doctor who rejected the Environment Ministry’s repeated requests to lie in court is now helping an elderly woman in her lawsuit against the government over one of Japan’s worst pollution disasters.

The case is now before the Supreme Court, but it stems back to 1978 and 1980, when the woman's application to the Kumamoto prefectural government for certification as a Minamata disease patient was rejected.

The 87-year-old woman living in Osaka Prefecture is originally from Kumamoto Prefecture, where Minamata disease was first reported in the 1950s. The disease, caused by consumption of marine products contaminated by mercury dumped into Minamata Bay by a Chisso Corp. chemical factory, can lead to numbness in the limbs, impaired vision and even death.

The woman filed a lawsuit against the central and Kumamoto prefectural governments seeking to overturn the prefecture’s decision.

The Osaka District Court agreed with her arguments and ordered that she be certified as a Minamata disease patient, entitling her to government payments for medical treatment.

However, the Osaka High Court ruled against the woman in April 2012.

In preparing its appeal to the high court, the Environment Ministry asked Takeshi Sato, 80, to present evidence on behalf of the defendants, according to the woman’s lawyers.

Sato is a former head of the Kohnodai Hospital under the National Center for Global Health and Medicine and has done research on a similar case of mercury poisoning in Niigata Prefecture.

The doctor in June 2011 reviewed the woman's symptoms, pre-existing conditions and her past lifestyle. In Sato’s opinion, the numbness in the points of the woman’s limbs, a classic symptom of Minamata disease, showed that she had the disease.

He wrote an opinion for submission to the high court that totally negated the claim by the defendants that the woman suffered from a deformity of the cervical and lumbar vertebrae, not Minamata disease.

Environment Ministry officials did not ask Sato to change the contents of his written opinion. But they did ask him to testify in court that the Kumamoto prefectural certification committee’s decision not to certify the woman was "appropriate."

When Sato refused, the Environment Ministry official in charge of the matter repeated the request to Sato on a number of occasions.

The two sides failed to reach an agreement, and Sato was never called to testify or present his written opinion.

When Sato learned that the high court ruled against the woman, he contacted her lawyers and explained what had happened with the Environment Ministry officials.

"I cannot help but have sympathy for the suffering of the patient who was denied certification even though she clearly shows symptoms of the disease," Sato wrote in a letter to her lawyers.

On Feb. 26, the plaintiff submitted to the Supreme Court Sato's written opinion and testimony that were never given to the Osaka High Court. Her lawyers are arguing that the high court would have likely ruled in favor of certification if Sato's opinion had been submitted.

Arguments will be heard at the Supreme Court on March 15.

Yasuo Tanaka, a lawyer for the woman, criticized the tactics of the Environment Ministry.

"They were likely so intent on protecting the certification standards that they asked individuals to provide false testimony," he said.

A major point of the lawsuit is the appropriateness of the central government’s standards in certifying Minamata disease victims.

If a court rejects those standards, the effects would be huge because the basis for supporting those who failed to meet those standards would also collapse.

Around 3,000 people have been certified as Minamata disease patients, but thousands of others have been rejected. A political decision had been made to provide support to people who fell short of the standards.

An official with the Environment Ministry's Special Environmental Diseases Office said: "We cannot comment on an ongoing lawsuit. In general, we do not ask specialists to provide false testimony."

By HISATOSHI TANAKA/ Staff Writer
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Lawyers and supporters of a woman seeking Minamata disease certification respond to questions after submitting testimony from Takeshi Sato to the Supreme Court on Feb. 26. (Hisatoshi Tanaka)

Lawyers and supporters of a woman seeking Minamata disease certification respond to questions after submitting testimony from Takeshi Sato to the Supreme Court on Feb. 26. (Hisatoshi Tanaka)

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  • Lawyers and supporters of a woman seeking Minamata disease certification respond to questions after submitting testimony from Takeshi Sato to the Supreme Court on Feb. 26. (Hisatoshi Tanaka)

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