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The Japanese government agreed last week to settle with a group of former local workers who contracted lung problems after repairing ships that used asbestos, at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, paying them a total of about $2.2 million, the workers’ attorney said.

Monday’s settlement concludes a series of asbestos lawsuits by former Yokosuka workers who claim they contracted lung problems after working at the base.

The government agreed to pay 14 million yen, or about $129,000, each to five former workers and 25 million yen, or about $230,000, each to bereaved families of six workers, according to Takeshi Furukawa, the group’s attorney.

The group worked at Yokosuka’s ship repair facility and public works center between 1946 and 1986. They filed a suit in Yokosuka District Court in July 2003 claiming proper asbestos measures — such as providing them with proper equipment — were not taken.

The settlement marked the end of a series of three lawsuits first filed in 1999. Furukawa represented the plaintiffs in all three.

“The great accomplishment [of the suits] was that we were able to overturn the policy of the government, which at the time was not willing to compensate without a trial,” Furukawa said.

The workers initially decided to file lawsuits after claims they filed, based on the Status of Forces Agreement, were turned down by the Japanese government.

However, two former workers who filed claims in 1999 based on SOFA were compensated approximately $330,000 last month.

“From the viewpoint of relieving victims, it is gratifying that a settlement was reached during a pretrial procedure today and early solution was reached for most of the people who filed lawsuits,” Shinshiro Yamazaki, director general of Defense Facilities Administration Agency’s General Affairs Department, said Monday.

U.S. Forces Japan officials deferred settlement inquiries to the DFAA.

The Japanese and U.S. governments are in negotiations over the issue, according to Japanese officials. Japan claims the United States is responsible for reimbursing Japan for the money because of contract provisions between the two nations regarding Japanese workers at U.S. bases. According to Japanese sources, the U.S. position was that it was not responsible to reimburse Japan.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Ben Sakrisson, a USFJ spokesman, did say the U.S. military’s position regarding compensation remains unchanged. Claims brought to USFJ have always been handled in accordance with existing Status of Forces Agreement guidelines, he said.

Vince Little contributed to this report.

Previous payouts

Three years ago, the Yokohama District Court awarded 230 million yen, about $2.2 million, to a group of nine former workers and bereaved family of three 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 plaintiffs, it reduced the amount by 80 million yen (about $755,000). Three plaintiffs appealed but were rejected by the Supreme Court.

A second group of workers settled with the Japanese government in September 2004 when officials agreed to pay 300 million yen (about $2.83 million) for 21 workers. The court also has recommended settlement for a third group of plaintiffs.

DFAA paid compensation to three former workers and their families in 1997.

Meanwhile, one former worker and the family of another worker were compensated a total of about $330,000 in April after they filed claims to the Japanese government in 1999 based on the Status of Forces Agreement. The seven other workers filed claims along with the two workers. Six dropped their claims; most were plaintiffs in the lawsuits that have been settled or are in that process. Compensation now is being paid in one.

— Hana Kusumoto

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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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