Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bows in apology on May 18 to plaintiffs seeking compensation for health damages from exposure to asbestos. (Koichi Ueda)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized to victims of asbestos-related illnesses when they met on May 18 to discuss the government’s decision to pay compensation as ordered by the Supreme Court.

“We are speechless when we think about the suffering and burden you have long borne and the grief you experienced with the loss of your family members,” Suga said. “We take our responsibly sincerely and will do serious soul searching, and I, representing the government, offer a heartfelt apology to you.”

The Supreme Court on May 17 ruled that the state and building material manufacturers were responsible for neglecting to take safety precautions for construction workers who were exposed to asbestos.

About 1,200 plaintiffs are fighting the government in 33 asbestos-related lawsuits across the country. The number of affected workers is estimated at about 10,000.

Haruko Osaka, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, urged the government to set up a relief system for victims who did not join the legal action.

“I do not want other victims to go through the same experience we had,” said Osaka, 77, whose husband and son died of mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer caused by inhaling asbestos.

After the top court decision, the government moved swiftly to set up uniform settlement guidelines for plaintiffs as well as a relief fund for victims who did not join the lawsuits.

It signed an agreement with plaintiffs on the compensation and the establishment of the relief fund on May 18.

The government plans to pay up to 13 million yen ($119,300) per victim, regardless of whether they are plaintiffs.

The government and the companies held liable are still discussing how much the manufacturers should pay to the plaintiffs and other victims.

Kiyo Osono, 76, one of the plaintiffs whose husband died of lung asbestosis, called on the government to accelerate talks with the companies over the relief package.

“We wish to receive compensation in a complete form as soon as possible through the settlement or the fund,” she said.