A Japanese high court ruled Wednesday that 84 people in Hiroshima Prefecture are eligible to receive state health care benefits even though they were exposed to radioactive "black rain" following the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing outside an area currently recognized by the government.

Upholding a lower court decision last year, the Hiroshima High Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying they should receive the same benefits as those provided for atomic bomb survivors who were in the zone where the state has recognized black rain fell.

Plaintiffs head to the Hiroshima High Court on July 14, 2021, to hear a ruling on their case seeking state health care benefits for exposure to radioactive "black rain" after the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. (Kyodo)

The high court ruling is expected to impact the ongoing review by the central government on areas where black rain fell and its health impact.

In line with a Hiroshima District Court ruling in July last year the high court recognized all 84 plaintiffs, including deceased individuals, as hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombing and ordered the prefectural and city governments of Hiroshima to accept their applications for state health care benefits.

For the recognition of the plaintiffs as atomic bomb victims, "it is sufficient to prove that the possibility of damage to their health due to atomic bomb radiation cannot be ruled out," said Presiding Judge Kazuto Nishii.

The high court said radioactive rain fell in a wider area beyond the designated zone and the plaintiffs are hibakusha because they are likely to have suffered health damage caused by their exposure to radiation.

Masaaki Takano (C), who heads the plaintiffs, and others celebrate a ruling in their favor in front of the Hiroshima High Court on July 14, 2021. (Kyodo)

The ruling accepted the plaintiffs' claim that there was also a possibility of internal radiation exposure due to the ingestion of contaminated food and well water.

The defendants had argued there was no scientific proof for nuclear fallout in the area where the plaintiffs resided. Even if they were exposed to radiation, its influence on their health would be insignificant, the defendants said.

When a lawyer raised a banner in front of the courthouse declaring "complete victory" in the suit, supporters of the plaintiffs who had been waiting for the ruling exploded with joy.

"I express my sincere gratitude," said Masaaki Takano, the 83-year-old head of the plaintiffs. He added the plaintiffs will request that the state, and the Hiroshima prefectural and city governments not appeal the ruling.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a press conference that the central government will decide on what to do after discussing its response with the Hiroshima governments, as well as ministries and agencies concerned.

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui said, "We would like to discuss the matter with the prefecture and health ministry, with the city's desire to expand the black rain zone in mind."

Residents of the state-designated black rain zone are eligible to receive free health checkups and atomic bomb survivors' certificates entitling them to medical benefits in the event that they develop 11 specific illnesses caused by radiation.

But the plaintiffs' applications for health care benefits for atomic bomb survivors filed with the Hiroshima prefectural and city governments between 2015 and 2018 were rejected as they resided outside the zone, prompting them to sue the governments to seek the nullification of the decisions.

Based on previous research, the central government designated an oval-shaped area measuring 19 kilometers in length and 11 km in width stretching northwest of the hypocenter of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, as the zone where black rain fell for an hour or longer.

The local governments, as well as the health ministry had appealed the district court ruling last August, insisting "highly scientific proof" was necessary to determine whether the plaintiffs were in an environment affected by radiation, which is one of the conditions for their recognition as atomic bomb survivors.

Last November, the health ministry launched a review panel of experts to study areas where black rain fell after the local governments asked for the recognized black rain zone to be expanded based on the district court's ruling.

The panel, which has met five times so far, decided to conduct climate simulations and a soil investigation in addition to analyzing the journals of atomic bomb survivors, but it has not reached a conclusion yet.

The top government spokesman said he expects the health ministry to speedily work on the review as those concerned are aging and their memories are fading, making scientific study of the black rain area even more difficult.

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