Japanese Asbestos Scandal


 Japan is the latest country among industrialized countries to cease using asbestos. It was a quarter of a century behind Northern European countries and 10-15 years later than other western countries. Considering the relative lateness of Japan’s full-fledged industrial use of asbestos and the long incubation periods of asbestos-related diseases, it is no wonder that there is a time lag of epidemics of asbestos-related diseases between Japan and those countries.

To learn from both the positive (ban on asbestos and other countermeasures) and negative (asbestos epidemic and pollution problems, etc.) experiences of preceding countries is an essential element of the precautionary principle. Japan failed to implement it and finally moved into a total ban on asbestos only after epidemic of asbestos-related diseases became obvious. This is one of underlying causes that Japan was challenged by a big asbestos scandal in 2005.

A mass meeting held by BANJAN at Hibiya Public Assembly Hall in Tokyo, Japan on 30 January 2006. Facing the 2,500 asbestos victims and their families, workers and citizens gathered there, a male mesothelioma victim calls for ‘justice for victims and their families’ and an ‘asbestos-free society’.
Photo: Akira Imai

Kubota Shock
When an article of a newspaper disclosed on 29 June 2005 that many workers had died of asbestos-related diseases at the former Kanzaki plant (Amagasaki City, Hyogo Prefecture) of the Kubota Corporation, a major machinery maker, the public felt that vital information on the effects of asbestos exposure had been concealed from them for a long time. There had been 74 deaths accumulated among Kubota workers amd four deaths among its subcontracting companies. The number of deaths among Kubota workers had increased up to 105 by 31 March 2006; this was more than 10% of all workers at the plant.

This plant had manufactured asbestos cement water pipes by using crocidolite and chrysotile from 1954 to 1975, and asbestos housing materials (mainly roofing and outer walls) by using only chrysotile from 1960 to 2001.

The article conveyed an additional fact—a further five residents who were living or had lived within one kilometer from the factory suffered from mesothelioma, and two of them had died. All of them had no occupational asbestos exposure history and their diseases were assumed to be due to environmental (neighborhood) exposure to asbestos leaked from the factory in the past. A company official said that the company was considering paying some consolation money to the victims. This raised the public concern on possible asbestos impact upon not only workers but also communities as a whole.

Japanese society was made to look squarely at the real impact of asbestos by this scoop at the first time—thus it was called the ‘Kubota shock’. All the media followed this story and intensively covered asbestos issues every day. In a twinkling, ‘mesothelioma’—a very rare cancer inseparably linked to asbestos exposure—became one of most well-known diseases to the public. Everyone argued that the real extent of asbestos hazards should be revealed.

A succession of disclosures by companies started from asbestos products manufacturers to a wide range of other industries such as shipbuilding, automobile and railroad vehicle manufacturers, power and chemical plants, etc. The Government asked all industry organizations to report their past use of asbestos and the number of asbestos victims at their member companies, and opened those reports to the public. Finally the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) disclosed the names of the companies which had asbestos-related cancer victims compensated by the workers compensation insurance in the past and the numbers of compensated cases, etc. (By the end of 2004, there were 495 cases of mesothelioma and 354 asbestos-related lung cancers, totalling 849 cases. This was the first instance of such disclosure by the MHLW in Japan.)

Calls poured in on NGOs, trade unions, relevant companies and governmental offices from victims, their families, workers, residents and others who had become anxious about asbestos diseases, future health effects, etc. since this scandal. In several cases bereaved families couldn’t receive workers’ compensation insurance benefits because of the statute of limitations (five years after the victim’s death) had expired. Also there were cases for which the time and place of victims’ exposure to asbestos could not be determined.

The public became concerned about why this problem had been allowed to grow so serious and about whether and how we could prevent the spread of asbestos hazards that had been rising day by day. Despite the protests of companies’ officials and government officials, people considered this to be yet another case in which the government and companies failed to act properly to save lives, comparable to the Minamata disease caused by methyl mercury poisoning and the spread of AIDS caused by HIV-contaminated blood products.

Establishing comprehensive countermeasures against asbestos for preventing further health effects of all people was desired.

The government went into motion. On 1 July, a task team was set up among ministries. All political parties also set up special asbestos task teams and pledged to tackle asbestos issues in their election manifestos. By the end of 2005, the relevant ministries had drawn up and adopted a set of measures called the ‘Comprehensive Measures to Tackle Asbestos Issues’.

Following the ‘Comprehensive Measures to Tackle Asbestos Issues’ adopted by the ministers, the government submitted bills to enact a new ‘Asbestos Victims’ Relief Law’ and to amend the Air Pollution Control Law, Local Government Finance Law, Building Standards Law and Waste Disposal Law for prevention of further health effects, before the 2006 New Year session of the National Diet.

Opposition parties called for the establishment of a special committee to examine them, but the government and ruling parties rejected the calls and instead accelerated the agenda of meetings. Those bills were passed without any modification after only one or two days’ committee meetings and plenary sessions of the Upper House and the Lower House of the Diet respectively. Opposition parties opposed the bill for the new relief scheme, arguing that the relief provided by the bill was still far from meeting the demands of the parties or those of the victims and the public.

The ‘Asbestos Victims’ Relief Law’ was issued on 10 February and took effect on 27 March 2006.

To the general public, the ‘Kubota Shock’ might seem a sudden occurrence. But there was a long run-up period.

Following the ILO Asbestos Convention (No. 162) and Recommendations (No. 172) which were adopted in 1986, Japanese trade unions, citizens’ groups, OSH campaigners and interested individuals including academics, medical practitioners and attorneys established a coalition—BANJAN: Ban Asbestos Network Japan. This aimed to raise awareness of the public, and to facilitate introducing a total ban on asbestos and comprehensive countermeasures against asbestos. BANJAN also has been promoting and supporting actions of victims, workers and citizens.

But our works haven’t necessarily sailed large. BANJAN put forward the draft of a Ban Asbestos Law that intended to phase out asbestos and set up a Council for Prevention Measures of Asbestos Health Hazards by all concerned. The bill proposed to the National Diet with the collection of about 630,000 signatures in favor of enacting the law, however, faced opposition by asbestos industries (i.e., industries manufacturing asbestos-containing products) and was rejected without deliberation in 1992.

Also asbestos-related diseases have been not so visible for as long as in many Asian countries. We have been concentrating our efforts on detecting asbestos victims. It would be the last decade that we were realized the starting of asbestos epidemic. Year by year, calls for assistances from asbestos victims and their families have been increasing.

BANJAN supported them in banding together, and the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-related Diseases Victims and Their Families was established in February 2004. Realizing the outbreak of an asbestos epidemic and the increasing global trend towards a ban on asbestos finally moved the Japanese government. Since October 2004, Japan has prohibited asbestos in principle.

Under these circumstances, we held the Global Asbestos Congress 2004 in Tokyo (GAC2004). We had 800 participants including 120 overseas delegates from 40 countries and regions (42 from 13 Asian countries and regions). Establishing face-to-face relationships with victims and support groups from more than 20 countries at GAC2004 stimulated Japanese victims and their families, and it was just during the preparation period of GAC2004 that Mrs. Kazuko Furukawa, vice president of the association, met a neighborhood mesothelioma victim in Amagasaki city. Together with BANJAN members they investigated the suspicion that the victim’s mesothelioma might have been caused by asbestos from the Kubota plant, and found more two resident mesothelioma victims and two deceased victims through legwork around the plant. Before then, victims had fought against the deadly disease alone, harbouring questions about where and how they had been exposed to asbestos.

When they met each other they were convinced that Kubota was guilty of causing their diseases. Three mesothelioma victims, supported by Kazuko and other our colleagues, asked Kubota about what had been happening in its plant. The trigger of the ‘Kubota Shock’ was a result of the heroism of those victims.

Kubota officials met the victims and disclosed substantial information (incidence of asbestos-related diseases among its workers, flow sheets of manufacturing products, historical records on asbestos usage and measurements of airborne asbestos fiber concentrations, measures for prevention of environment pollution, health monitoring of exposed workers and an additional compensation scheme for occupational victims on top of workers’ compensation insurance benefits, aerial photos of the plant, etc.). Then Kubota offered to pay two million yen as consolation money without any quid-pro-quo condition such as renunciation of their claims to compensation. The company would not admit a causal relationship between the victims’ diseases and the past release of asbestos from its plant. The money was ‘for demonstrating the company’s sympathy to the victims and appreciation of the grace of the neighborhood people of the plant, that the company could have operated its business here for long years’.

Disclosure of relevant information and granting of consolation money without any quid-pro-quo condition were very different from the behavior of other offending enterprises in the past pollution cases. A Kubota official told one researcher that they had learnt from lessons from the Minamata disease case. I believe Kubota’s decision was to minimize damages from this scandal and this was a wise way to proceed. Kubota also never asked the victims and supporters to keep relevant information and meetings secret. Immediately after the scoop of Mainichi newspaper on 29 June 2006, Kubota held a press conference and confirmed the contents of the scoop. Other companies had to follow Kubota’s manner.

Since the ‘Kubota Shock’, affiliate organizations of BANJAN and JOSHRC had thousands of calls really without pause from victims, their families, workers, residents and others. Leading members have been asked comments and advices from the media, political parties and others every night and day.

On 26 July, BANJAN presented proposals for comprehensive measures consisted of approximately 70 points to be tackled.

On 26 August, BANJAN sent an open letter to all political parties on the occasion of nationwide election. In the open letter we asked positions of each political party to the above immediate requests (See box) which took along with my testimony at the Lower House. All major parties answered in favor of all questions in general.

BANJAN’s Requests to All Political Parties

1) Setting up compensation scheme for asbestos victims and their families who are not covered by the workers compensation insurance
2) Legal solution to redress victims who cannot receive compensation due to ‘statute of limitation’
3) Creation of ‘mesothelioma register’
4) Improvements of health monitoring system for exposed workers and recognition standards of asbestos-related diseases for workers’ compensation
5) Carrying out intensive epidemiological study of residents near KUBOTA’s former Kanzaki Factory
6) Expanding the coverage of relevant regulations to materials containing more than 0.1% of carcinogen by weight
7) Tightening and harmonizing relevant regulations for repair and demolition works of buildings etc. to which asbestos has been installed
8) Disclosure of asbestos-related information, which the government and enterprises, etc. have and hold, and permanent preservation of them
9) Establishing comprehensive measures including enactment of a ‘Basic Law on Asbestos’
10) Continual and integrated actions with full participation of representatives of victims and their families and supporting NPOs, etc.


BANJAN had a meeting with officials of the Japan Asbestos Association (JAA) on 14 September, requesting more meaningful disclosure and to fulfill its and each member’s cooperate responsibilities. JAA promised to disclose the data on workplace and boundary (between plant and outside environment) measurements of airborne concentrations of asbestos fibers and PRTR (pollutant release and transfer register) data of each member company as soon as possible.

Next day, on 15 September, BANJAN also released its urgent requests to the government concerning new asbestos bill under consideration.

Several social parties, such as the Kinki Federation of Bar Associations (14 September 2005), the People’s Association on Countermeasures of Dioxin & Endocrine Disruptors (21 September), the Japan Trade Union Confederation (JTUC-RENGO, 21 October) and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (18 January 2006), also made public their proposals or positions on asbestos issues. All of which have basically same contents as those of BANJAN.

BANJAN launched a signature campaign making the below six requests on 22 October.

1) Immediate total ban on import, manufacture, marketing and new use of asbestos and asbestos containing materials
2) Enactment of a ‘Basic Law on Asbestos’ to promote unitarily comprehensive measures including identification, management, removal and disposal of asbestos and asbestos containing materials
3) Establishment of health monitoring systems for all persons exposed to asbestos
4) Abolishment of ‘statute of limitation’ for workers’ compensation to asbestos-related disease cases
5) Compensation pursuant to workers’ compensation insurance benefits (including medical treatment, income indemnity and compensation for bereaved families) for asbestos victims and their families who are not covered by workers’ compensation scheme
6) Making all mesothelioma being compensable and securing that other asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, which is presumed twice as much as mesothelioma, can be eligible for compensation.

This was calling for more equitable and more comprehensive solutions upon all aspects of asbestos legacy than bills proposed by the government. So many groups and individuals from wide range of social sectors all over the country assented to the petition and worked together for the sign-in campaign. We were able to collect 1,871,473 signatures supporting our requests in the short period of only a little over three months.

On 25 December 2005, the president of Kubota Corporation met asbestos victims and their families in Amagasaki City and officially apologized to them. Also he pledged to set up a new compensation framework instead of the current consolation/condolence money in the light of corporate social responsibility. He acknowledged at press conference after the meeting that it was unprecedented to take such actions without recognizing a causal relationship and that however it couldn’t deny that asbestos fibers might have leaked from its former Kanzaki plant.

BANJAN and the victims’ associations continued with their work, however. Immediately after asbestos bills were put on the agenda, on 23 January 2006, BANJAN had a press conference in the National Diet where more than 250 media, congress members, asbestos victims and their families, workers and citizens gathered. I announced that we had collected 1,461,730 signatures as of that time and handed them to the congress members, asking to respect those signatures as the real voice of the people and to make ultimate efforts to realize them.


2,500 asbestos victim supporters march to the National Diet in a demonstration on 31 January 2006; families holding pictures of deceased victims stand at the front of the march.
Photo: Akira Imai

On 30 January, BANJAN hold a mass meeting where 2,500 asbestos victims and their families, workers and citizens gathered. Representatives of the JTUC-RENGO, the People’s Association on Countermeasures of Dioxin & Endocrine Disruptors, the Committee on the Environment and Pollution Problems of the Tokyo Bar Association and political parties expressed solidarities for achieving fair and equal compensation for all asbestos victims and their families and asbestos-free society. The meeting adopted a resolution to propose a Permanent Inter-ministries Committee and a National Asbestos Congress consists of all interested parties set by the government to monitor the achievement processes of our requests. Then 2,500 participants marched to the National Diet in a demonstration. Families holding pictures of the deceased asbestos victims stood at the front line of the march.

The proposed bills gained approval on 3 February. We are not satisfied with enacted bills. The coverage and the level of relief stipulated by new ‘Asbestos Victims Relief Law’ is extremely low and insufficient. Revisions of the Air Pollution Control Law, the Local Government Finance Law, the Building Standards Law and the Waste Disposal Law remain partial improvements. None of our requests is completely realized yet. We are also not satisfied with the process of drafting those bills without enough participation of victims and families and enough consultation with social parties. The major newspapers wrote similar recognitions – such as, ‘asbestos aid falls short’ (Japan Times, 15 March 2006), ‘not all asbestos victims to be compensated’ (Yomiuri Shimbun, 21 March) and so on. RENGO’s Statement by General Secretary (20 March) said that ‘there is great disparity between the new asbestos law and workers’ compensation’.

20 March was the starting day that Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency (ERCA, for Relief Benefits) and Labour Standards Inspection Offices (LSIOs, for Special Survivors Benefits) accepted applications for new Asbestos Victims Relief Law. JOSHRC and affiliate local OSH centers carried out toll-free and nation-wide telephone consultation service from 20-22 March, where we received 805 calls, including 182 mesothelioma cases and 169 lung cancer cases, from asbestos victims and their families, etc.

The number of applications for new asbestos law has been 3,524 to ERCA (mesothelioma 2,668, lung cancer 761, unknown 95, as of 31 December) and 1,334 to LSIOs (as of 30 September).

Since the Kubota Shock, members of the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-related Diseases Victims and Their Families have been increasing and local branches of the association are being set up (ten branches as of now).

Also the number of asbestos victims suspected due to neighborhood exposure to asbestos from Kubota’s former Kanzaki plant and their families, reached to Kansai and Amagasaki OSH Centers – affiliates of JOSHRC, has been increasing to more than one hundred. They formulated the Amagasaki Branch of the national association and Kubota has been paying 2 million yen of consolation or condolence money to each case of them.

Kansai and Amagasaki OSH Centres asked two researchers, Norio Kurumatani, professor of the Nara Medical University and Shinji Kumagai, chief researcher of the Division of Life and Hygiene of the Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health, to conduct an epidemiological study directed to those cases. Interim findings were reported at several meetings of relevant academic societies and covered by the media, endorsing the public presumption of the causal relationship between Kubota’s asbestos and neighborhood victims.

On 13 April 2006, Drs. Kurumatani and Kumagai released at a press conference their report entitled ‘epidemiological assessment of mesothelioma occurred among neighborhoods of Kubota’s former Kanzaki Plant in Amagasaki City’. They confirmed 99 mesothelioma cases considered due to neighborhood exposure based on interviews to victims and their families and other evidences including medical records. Standardized Mortality Ratios (SMRs) of mesothelioma for female and male who lived within 1.5km or more from the plant was significantly high. They also conducted simulation study to estimate airborne concentrations of asbestos fibers based on observed (confirmed) excess mesothelioma mortality, data on wind velocity and direction, and other data. It was estimated that asbestos concentration within a few kilometers of the plant exceeded the level of 10 fibers per liter of air in around 1975. Of the 540,000 residents in the city, 120,000 lived in the affected area ranging about 1.5 kilometers north-northeast to more than four kilometers south-southwest. They concluded that asbestos used at the plant played a vital role in accumulating mesothelioma in this area.

Shortly thereafter, on 17 April, Kubota Corporation and victims, families and supporters had press conferences respectively to announce that they reached an agreement on new compensation framework. Kubota would pay ‘relief’ money ranging from 25 million yen to 46 million yen to the victims and their families according to the agreement. General requirements are that the victim had lived within 1 km radius of the former Kanzaki plant more than one year and that the victim or his/her family was recognized as eligible for Relief Benefits by the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency under the new law. But a panel composed by same number of representatives from Kubota and victims dealt with details on how to apply the agreement to an individual case.

We consider this agreement to be the starting point for achieving ‘fair and equal compensation for all asbestos victims and their families’. We are making efforts to achieve it and to get a ‘Basic Law on Asbestos’ for achieving ‘Asbestos Free Society’ continuously.

An enterprise or government has to pay dearly for its omission. And the more important thing is that such omission should force the public to bear avoidable and unacceptable burden. I believe that Asian countries can avoid unnecessary additional costs due to the fatal material.

I can summarize the lessons from Japanese experiences as below:
1) Adopting the precautionary approach to learn experiences of Japan and western countries without awaiting the appearance and epidemic of asbestos-related diseases is crucial. The introduction of a ban on asbestos as soon as possible is desired.
2) A ban on asbestos is the first step to tackle wide-ranging aspects of asbestos legacy for all countries. Concentrating efforts of all social parties for that, especially empowerment of asbestos victims and their families, is very important.
3) Facilitating global cooperation at various levels and areas is also strongly recommended.
‘The idea of an asbestos-free world is no longer a dream but a realistic goal in the near future. Working together we can make a difference for the future.’ (from the closing remarks of Dr. Yoshiomi Temmyo, Chair of the Organizing Committee of GAC2004)

This article has been presented in an earlier form at the Asian Asbestos Conference 2006 in Bangkok.

Outline of the Asbestos Victims Relief Law

The ‘Asbestos Victims Relief Law’ was issued 10 February and took effect on 27 March 2006. This law set up two types of schemes for asbestos victim relief in Japan: Relief Benefits and Special Survivors Benefits.
I. Relief Benefits
(1) Eligible persons:
Victims of the designated asbestos-related diseases (mesothelioma and lung cancer) and bereaved families, who are not covered by workers’ compensation and other schemes. Included are victims of neighborhood exposure, domestic exposure, occupational exposure and general exposure not due to specific fixed sources.
(2) Benefits:
A) Benefits include:
i. Medical Expenses Reimbursement, for expenses paid by victim individually and not covered by national healthcare insurance scheme.
ii. Medical Treatment Benefit of 103,870 yen per month to the victim. Explained as relief for other expenses with receiving medical treatment and care by family members, etc.
iii. Funeral Expenditure Lump Sum Allowance of 199,000 yen.
iv. Relief Benefit Adjustment Allowance—a top-up amount for the difference between 2,800,000 yen and total amount of Medical Expenses and Medical Treatment Benefits paid to the bereaved family after the victim died
B) If victim has died before the enforcement date of new law (27 March 2006), the bereaved family is entitled to:
i. Special Survivors Condolence Allowance of 2,800,000 yen
ii. Special Funeral Expenditure of 199,000 yen
(3) Enforcement Body:
Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency (under the Ministry of the Environment)
(4) Financing:
The Asbestos Victims Relief Fund is established in the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency, and the cost of the fund is shared as follows.
The amount of the cost is presumed to be 9 billion yen each year beginning fiscal year 2007 until fiscal year 2010. The national government will pay a portion, mainly for establishment of the fund and part of the running administrative costs. But the bulk of payments will be paid by employers after fiscal year 2007. There are two types of employer contributions:
i) General Contribution
Based on the idea that all employers have benefited economically from the use of asbestos, all employers are to share the cost of relief. The contribution amount will be calculated by multiplying the wage bill by certain rates. The contribution is treated separately from the workers’ compensation insurance premium, but the latter system is used to collect the contribution.
ii) Special Contribution
Employers deeply related to asbestos as meeting with certain conditions (asbestos usage, incidence of designated diseases, etc.) will be required to pay additional contribution on top of the General Contribution.
II. Special Survivors Benefits
(1) Eligible persons:
Bereaved families of workers who had died of asbestos-related diseases (mesothelioma, lung cancer and three others) before 27 March 2001, and whose rights to receive Survivor Compensation Benefits from Workers’ Compensation Insurance have lapsed with the expiry of the relevant 5-year statue of limitations.
(2) Benefits:
a) Special Survivors Pension for the bereaved family - 2,400,000 (one dependant) to 3,300,000 (four dependants or more) yen.
b) Special Survivors Lump-sum Allowance—An amount up 12,000,000 yen to the bereaved family, such that the total Pension and Lump Sum Allowance to the bereaved amounts to 12,000,000 yen.
(3) Enforcement Body:
Labour Standards Inspection Office (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare)
(4) Financing:
Necessary costs are paid out from the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Account.