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Oct 18, 2004 6:37 am


Minamata Justice



Japan's Supreme Court ordered the government to pay compensation to additional victims of one of the most egregious and troubling cases of environmental injustice: Minamata Bay mercury poisoning. The actual pollution happened in the 1950s, and the relationship between environmental mercury and neurological and mutagenic damage was recognized almost immediately. Minamata Bay residents became increasingly organized and radicalized in the 1960s, as the government and the responsible company put off their claims and refused to deal substantively with the issue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Minamata movement was one of the linchpin issues in the growing environmental movement in Japan, a movement that was blunted by the government's adoption of rigorous clean-air laws in the mid-70s. But the failure to address Minamata directly led to the filing of a lawsuits for responsibility and compensation in the 1980s. A settlement in the mid-90s failed to address the issue of government responsibility (in an echo of Japan's ongoing" comfort women" problem) and left out some victims who had not been so designated in an earlier round of bureaucratic management (an echo of Japan's continuing problem with non-citizen [i.e. Korean forced labor] and late-classified hibakusha [atomic bomb victims]). In typically slow fashion, the case has finally been addressed by the highest court.

In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens we encounter the Four Horsemen (on motorcycles, real Hell's Angels) of the Apocalypse: War, Death, Famine and .... well, Plague gave up when vaccinations and sulfa drugs started taking the fun out of disease (and missed out on some real fun), but he was replaced by Pollution, who takes immense pride in the much more pervasive and permanent damage done by heavy inorganics like arsenic and mercury..... Did I mention that it's a comedy?

This case has gone on so long, that it's history: Tim George, a gentleman historian and fine scholar, did his Ph.D. dissertation and first book on the Minamata activists. This is not unusual in the Japanese courts: it took almost thirty years for Ienaga's textbook case to make it through the courts, and the cases involving Tanaka Kakuei were eventually dismissed due to the fact that he had died in the interim. This ruling is interesting, as the justices were quite direct and damning in their statement that the government should have known and should have acted much earlier than it did. I don't think they're done prosecuting the Aum Shinri Kyo (Tokyo Subway Gas Attack) cases yet, and that was almost ten years ago now.

[Crossposted at Frog In A Well]

Non Sequitur: HNN intern Alex Bosworth's article on Truman's use of scare tactics to pass the Marshall Plan is now up, and the article is great, but the Matt Wueker cartoon at the top is far and away my favorite history-related cartoon of the year.....


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Jonathan Dresner - 10/18/2004

I don't know specifically about intellectual property cases, though that sounds quite realistic. Japanese companies were famous for 'reverse engineering' features on competitors' products, and replicating them, patents be damned. To be fair, in the immediate post-war, we facilitated that and encouraged it, as a way of spurring Japanese industrial growth.

Both the civil and criminal court systems run pretty slow, though Japan's reputation as a non-litigious society hasn't held up to close observation: they have lawyers and they use them, and they always have, just in different ways and under different names.


Richard Henry Morgan - 10/18/2004

I get the impression that civil action in general in Japan is slow as molasses (and deliberately so). I remember reading somewhere, a long time ago, that the Japanese legal response to patent infringement showed their devotion to Coase's theorem. Jumping patents was (is?) supposedly the norm. The civil action is stretched out, and the parties are encouraged to enter into cross-licensing agreements and agree to drop the case, and life goes on (a little poorer for the inventor, no doubt, but ...). Is that so?


Jonathan Dresner - 10/18/2004

Neil Gaiman, too (I love them both, but for very different reasons, and its remarkably hard to tell where one stops and the other begins in this book). It's just that some satire leaves a longer lingering 'oops, that's not just funny, it's true' taste than others.


Julie A Hofmann - 10/18/2004

doesn't mean it's not true. Terry Pratchett is incredibly sound on things that matter.

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