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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The United States owes Japan potentially millions of dollars in judgments and settlements for former naval base shipyard workers who developed asbestos-related lung diseases, Japanese officials say.

The money would reimburse the Japanese government for amounts it’s been ordered to pay former Yokosuka Naval Base workers, most now elderly men, who began filing lawsuits — and winning judgments — in Japan’s courts a few years ago.

The Japanese government, which contracted with the U.S. to supply naval shipyard workers, was the defendant in three such lawsuits, not the U.S. government. The Status of Forces Agreement generally discourages Japanese citizens from suing the U.S. government.

But the Master Labor Contract the two governments work from, Japanese officials say, provides that the United States must reimburse Japan for money judgments incurred against it by Japanese workers who sue for injuries incurred while they worked at the base.

U.S. Forces Japan officials said it would be “inappropriate” to comment while negotiations were ongoing. “When the discussions are through, we’ll be more than happy to come out with the resolution,” said Gunnery Sgt. Bob Hall, USFJ spokesman.

In previous news reports about the lawsuits, USFJ officials said they declined comment because the United States was not a party to the court proceedings. No mention was made of negotiations with Japanese officials about whether the United States ultimately would be held responsible for damages.

Masahiko Minoura of Japan’s Defense Facilities Administration Agency, which handles most issues related to U.S. bases, said DFAA and USFJ officials have met repeatedly and corresponded frequently on the matter. It’s important, he said, because taxpayers’ money is at stake.

“We hope to get the rules straight between the U.S. and Japan soon,” Minoura said. “We can’t give an inch.”

Minoura said Japan approached the United States for reimbursement when it paid almost 195 million yen — more than $1.8 million — to 12 workers or the survivors of deceased workers last year. Filed in 1999, that lawsuit was the first of three against Japan’s government by Japanese men who worked at Yokosuka starting in the 1950s and through 1992.

Japanese officials pointed to the Japanese-U.S. labor contract they say is at the heart of their right to reimbursement. The contract, provided to Stars and Stripes, says that other than in termination cases, the United States must pay Japan the same amount the Japanese government is ordered by a court or labor commission to pay to employees as a result of any administrative action Japan was required to take.

Although USFJ declined comment, Minoura said the United States’ position is that the “administrative action” to which the contract refers means actions having to do with issues such as job promotions and transfers — not safety issues or injuries.

But Japanese officials say the contract made the United States responsible for providing employees a safe work area, including protective clothing, training and establishing safety regulations.

“USFJ takes the main responsibility for ensuring the employees’ safety and health care of their working sites,” according to a letter Ro Manabe, director of the DFAA operation planning division, wrote to Stars and Stripes.

Minoura also said USFJ already reimbursed the Japanese government fully when a Master Labor Contract worker was injured and sued the Japanese government. A worker at an Army base in Yokohama was injured in 1969 after he jumped off a forklift to avoid a shutter that recoiled suddenly. He sued in 1979. The Japanese government lost the first court decision and both parties reached a settlement in 1980 where the Japanese government paid him 2,200,000 yen (about $21,000) — and was reimbursed fully by the U.S. government, Minoura said.

Who ultimately will pay potentially millions of dollars in damages is at issue in the negotiations. Besides the first judgment, affirmed by the Tokyo High Court, two others are working their way through the Japanese court system.

Last month, a Yokosuka judge hearing a case brought by 22 former base workers recommended the suit be settled with a 300 million yen payment, or $2.7 million. One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Takeshi Furukawa, said last month he would confer with his clients before deciding by May 24 whether to accept.

Furukawa also represents a third group of 11 workers and surviving family members who filed suit last year. All three of the cases were filed in the Yokohama District Court’s Yokosuka branch.

When a Yokohama District Court judge awarded money damages to Furukawa’s first group of plaintiffs, Furukawa called it “an all-out triumph.” It was the first time a Japanese court had ruled in an asbestos case involving a U.S. military base.

DFAA officials indicated they plan to keep discussing the issue with USFJ through official letters.

Asbestos primer

A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos was used for decades in fire retardant and insulation material. Workers of the era often wore no protective equipment to prevent inhaling what turned out to be toxic dust. Different governmental standards on “safe” exposure levels have varied over the years. In 1994, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a lower standard designed to reduce asbestos-related illnesses to four cases per 1,000 workers exposed.

Shipyard workers were exposed to the asbestos-containing dust for decades. According to the EPA, naval shipyard workers were the first group to develop asbestosis, which causes lung-scarring when the body produces acid to try to dissolve asbestos particles. It has an incubation period of up to 40 years.

Asbestos also causes some cancers, including one cancer of the lung whose only known cause is asbestos, and which is estimated to kill about 2,000 people a year.

Until a 1973 landmark case, in which plaintiffs successfully held that asbestos manufacturers failed to warn of an unreasonably dangerous product, asbestos-related illness was compensated through workers’ compensation.

According to the Asbestos Hazards Handbook, asbestos-related illness made headlines in Japan in the early 1980s, when a newspaper published a 1982 hospital study which concluded that a third of 848 deaths over five years in Yokosuka were caused by asbestos-related lung cancer.

— Nancy Montgomery

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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