A Japanese district court on Thursday ordered a chemical maker to pay 4 million yen ($26,000) each to 26 unrecognized sufferers of the Minamata mercury-poisoning disease, while dismissing claims against the Japanese government.

The Niigata District Court recognized that 26 of the 47 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who were not eligible for relief payments under a special law that went into force in 2009, were victims of the disease.

Unrecognized sufferers of the Minamata mercury-poisoning disease march to the Niigata District Court in Niigata, northwest of Tokyo, on April 18, 2024. The court later in the day recognized 26 plaintiffs as eligible for compensation by the company responsible but did not award them relief payments from the state. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The plaintiffs had sought 8.8 million yen each in damages against the state and the chemical company, Showa Denko K.K., currently known as Resonac Holdings Corp., responsible for the mercury contamination in Niigata Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo.

The ruling is the third of its kind among similar lawsuits filed with four district courts in the country. Earlier, the Osaka District Court granted compensation to all plaintiffs while the Kumamoto District Court denied compensation claims.

Presiding Judge Norio Shimamura ruled in favor of the 26 plaintiffs, saying that their symptoms and levels of exposure to methylmercury indicate a high likelihood that they had contracted Minamata disease.

Regarding the government's responsibility, Shimamura said it was difficult to conclude that the government could have predicted any specific health damage to local residents from the discharge of organic methylmercury from the company's factory.

"I cannot say that there was any illegality under the state redress law," the judge said.

Backed by medical certificates from local doctors, the 47 plaintiffs claimed they experienced typical symptoms of Minamata disease, such as sensory impairment, after eating fish from the Agano River contaminated by mercury from a Showa Denko factory.

They also criticized the government's failure to regulate the discharge of wastewater and the ending of relief applications under the 2009 special measures law in about two years.

The government has countered that it was unlikely people consumed a significant amount of fish from the Agano River after the official recognition of Niigata Minamata disease in May 1965, arguing the symptoms could have been caused by other factors.

The disease was first formally acknowledged in 1956 in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan, where mercury-tainted water had been dumped into the sea by a Chisso Corp. chemical plant, and then in Niigata Prefecture.

The illness paralyzes the central nervous system and causes birth defects, but legal battles have continued for sufferers who have been left out of the measures.

Following the ruling, the environment ministry said it will continue to follow the pollution-related health damage compensation law to help improve medical and welfare services in affected areas.

The government has also maintained that the 20-year statute of limitations for damage claims has expired.

Thursday's ruling addressed the first 47 of 149 plaintiffs in Niigata Prefecture, advancing their cases ahead of others. Meanwhile, a similar trial is underway at the Tokyo District Court, with a total of over 1,700 plaintiffs involved in the lawsuits at the four courts.

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