YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The first hearing of a lawsuit involving a deceased Japanese worker who said he contracted lung problems from asbestos exposure while working at Yokosuka Naval Base was held Monday at Yokohama District Court.

Hitoshi Taima’s family is seeking compensation from the Japanese government, accusing it and the U.S. Navy of failing to take precautions or provide him with protective equipment.

He filed the lawsuit May 9 asking for 86.5 million yen (about $700,000), but he died May 19 at age 51 from malignant pleural mesothelioma. The family inherited the lawsuit but had not determined the amount of the compensation request by Monday, according to their lawyer, Takeshi Furukawa.

Taima was the first active Yokosuka worker to file a lawsuit seeking compensation for an asbestos-related illness.

“If safety measures were taken at the workplace, my father would be still well and working,” Taima’s son said during the hearing.

Taima’s son said he hopes the Japanese government will conduct regular health checkups for workers who might have been exposed to asbestos, offer sufficient treatment and compensation for those who become ill, and engage in mesothelioma treatment research.

According to Furukawa, his client was exposed to asbestos particles between 1977 and 1995, when he repaired refrigerators and air conditioners for U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Yokosuka. He continued to work at the base until last year and was diagnosed with a lung-related illness in April 2006, Furukawa said.

Furukawa asked the court Monday to recognize as a fact that no asbestos-related safety measures were taken at NAVFAC until recently, unlike at Yokosuka’s Ship Repair Facility, where many Japanese workers had contracted lung problems. While the majority of Yokosuka’s Japanese workers who contracted lung problems worked at SRF, he said, the number of NAVFAC workers contracting illness could increase.

The Japanese government submitted a statement to the court asking it to reject the claim. A Defense Facilities Administration Agency spokesman declined to comment because the trial is ongoing.

Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan spokesman Jon Nylander said it would be inappropriate for the Navy to weigh in on the proceedings because it is not officially involved in the lawsuit.

“This is a case between the individual’s family and the Japanese government,” Nylander said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Allison Batdorff contributed to this report.

Compensation has been awarded in past claims

Several former Yokosuka workers have won lawsuits seeking compensation for asbestos exposure and others have settled with the Japanese government.

Five years ago, the Yokohama District Court awarded 230 million yen (about $1.8 million) to a group of nine former workers and family of three deceased workers in the first ruling on an asbestos case involving a U.S. military base. However, the Japanese government appealed the decision to the Tokyo High Court, which overturned part of it. Saying the statute of limitations had expired for five of the plaintiffs, it reduced the amount by 80 million yen (about $650,000). Three plaintiffs filed challenges, but the Supreme Court rejected their appeals.

A second group of workers settled with the Japanese government in September 2004. The government agreed to pay 300 million yen (about $2.4 million) total to 21 workers.

The court also has recommended the Japanese government settle with a third group of plaintiffs.

The Defense Facilities Administration Agency paid compensation to three former workers and their families in 1997.

Meanwhile, one former worker and the family of a deceased worker were compensated a total of about $285,000 in April 2005 after they filed claims with the Japanese government in 1999 based on the status of forces agreement it has with the United States.

In June 2005, Japan agreed to pay 14 million yen, or about $113,000, each to five former workers and 25 million yen, or about $202,000, each to the families of six deceased workers.

The Japanese and U.S. governments are in negotiations over the compensation issued, according to Japanese officials. Japan claims the United States is responsible for reimbursing Japan for the money paid to former workers in the previous cases because of contract provisions regarding Japanese workers at U.S. bases. According to Japanese sources, the U.S. position was that it was not responsible for reimbursing Japan.

— Hana Kusumoto

author picture
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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