An example of the government's insincere treatment of Minamata disease victims has come to light.

According to documents and pertinent evidence obtained by The Asahi Shimbun, a government grievance panel handling the case of a man who had been denied official recognition as a Minamata disease victim and seeking redress was leaning toward rejecting the man's claim and inappropriately notified the Environment Ministry of its intentions months before it issued a ruling.

Called the Pollution-Related Health Damage Compensation Grievance Board, the panel is an independent organ established in accordance with the pollution-related health damage compensation law. The selection of its members requires the Diet's approval, and the members' standing is well protected under the law.

Should such a panel inappropriately reveal its intentions to the government authorities concerned, its impartiality and neutrality are as good as nonexistent.

The board is also tasked with examining individuals claiming health damage from air pollution and asbestos and determining their eligibility for compensation.

But its action has severely hurt the credibility of the government's handling of environmental issues in general.

However, the gravity of the situation seems to have escaped Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa. During a news conference on Dec. 26, he declined to explain in detail and just said, "I have not been able to confirm the reported allegations yet."

With the year-end and New Year's holidays coming up, we suspect Nakagawa is hoping the problems will simply go away. And the grievance board's irresponsibility is undeniable, given that its head, Hiroshi Sawaki, has flatly refused to speak to reporters.

According to records, the tip-off occurred in January 2015, when the government's policy on recognizing Minamata disease victims was in flux.

When the Supreme Court ruled in April 2013 that more people should be certified as Minamata disease patients than the government's existing guidelines would allow, the grievance panel accepted the ruling. And in spring 2014, the Environment Ministry issued a "directive" to partially amend the guidelines.

But while this directive gave the semblance of complying with the Supreme Court decision, it did not relax the guidelines in actuality, inviting bitter criticisms from Minamata disease victims' groups and experts.

At the time the grievance board leaked its intentions to the Environment Ministry, close attention was being paid to whether the board's next decision would be more in line with the 2013 Supreme Court decision, or with the Environment Ministry's 2014 directive.

The Asahi Shimbun has learned that by January 2015, the Environment Ministry had given frequent "briefings" to the grievance panel, and that immediately after the tip-off, Hideka Morimoto, now administrative vice minister of the Environment Ministry, met with Kumamoto Governor Ikuo Kabashima. Morimoto told Kabashima to the effect that the board chief had “privately made clear that the board will respect the ministry’s guidelines” for decisions on the case.

There remains a lot of confusion over the handling of Minamata disease victims today. In an appeal trial, the Tokyo High Court recently ruled that all nine plaintiffs in Niigata Prefecture be recognized as victims. The confusion continues because of the government's obstinate refusal to revise its conditions for official recognition of victims, despite repeated reminders from the judiciary of the problems that still exist.

At present, 2,000 individuals are seeking redress and 1,500 are engaged in litigation. The government must face this reality squarely.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 27