YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A Japanese court has overturned part of a year-old ruling that awarded 230 million yen, or about $1.9 million, to 17 former Yokosuka Naval Base workers who contracted lung problems after decades of ship repair work involving asbestos.

On Tuesday, the Tokyo High Court dismissed a judgment of 80 million yen, or about $672,000, for five of the former workers and their families, saying the statute of limitations for such claims long since had expired.

The new ruling also said that only Japan’s government — not the U.S. military — was liable for the cases.

The Japanese government said it would not challenge awards given the other 12 plaintiffs in the case, which originally was filed in 1999. The plaintiffs worked at Yokosuka from the 1950s to 1992, regularly dealing with ship pipes and other materials that contained asbestos fibers.

None of the workers were provided respirators or told of the dangers of the work, they said. All of the workers contracted some form of lung disease they attribute to their time in the yards; three of the plaintiffs died while the case was being adjudicated.

The original ruling, issued in October 2002, was the first made by a Japanese court regarding asbestos cases on a U.S. military base. Several other similar cases still are pending.

“Although the Japanese government believes relief of the victim is the first priority and basically accepts the October verdict, the government filed the appeal because the government’s referral to the statute of limitation was called an abuse of rights,” said Michio Ishii of the Defense Facility Administration Agency.

The DFAA handles issues related to Japanese workers on U.S. bases.

“The government will exert its utmost effort in labor and security measures for the military workers,” Ishii said.

U.S. Forces Japan officials declined to comment on the ruling.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said his clients would appeal the latest ruling.

“This decision overlooks the gravity of the responsibility the Japanese government has as an employer and the tragedy of pneumoconiosis damage,” said attorney Takeshi Furukawa.

“It is extremely unjust since it leaned on the unreasonable claims of a statute of limitations and denied helping patients who have long suffered.”

According to the original lawsuit, exposure to asbestos particles caused the workers to contract a range of maladies from lung cancer to pneumoconiosis, a disease of the lungs caused by inhalation of metallic dust or other irritants.

During the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Yokosuka’s shipyard was buzzing with thousands of Japanese workers to overhaul warships and cargo vessels coming to refuel, re-arm and repair.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that doctors realized asbestos caused serious and irreparable harm to the lungs.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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