Hand in hand with A-bomb survivors: Walk, listen, consider “No more hibakusha”

Interview with Seigo Fujiwara, attorney, head of nationwide group of lawyers supporting class-action lawsuits

by Jumpei Fujimura, Editorial Writer

Battle over A-bomb disease certification lawsuits

Survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who argue they are suffering from cancer and other diseases caused by A-bomb radiation first launched legal action five decades ago. They have repeatedly demanded that the national government recognize their illnesses as being caused by the atomic bombings. Japan’s Supreme Court is anticipated to hand down a unified decision regarding the “need for medical treatment,” which is one of the requirements for receiving compensation, on February 25. “What has been contended in court is the human rights themselves of the A-bomb survivors,” said Seigo Fujiwara, 78, an attorney and head of a nationwide group of lawyers supporting class-action lawsuits involving A-bomb disease certification. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Mr. Fujiwara about what has been achieved through the long years of court battles.

Before delivering its decision, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in court. This is the first such hearing for lawsuits involving A-bomb disease certification.
Yes. The Supreme Court ordinarily holds examinations of documentary evidence, with oral proceedings rare. High courts had made different rulings on three cases appealed to the Supreme Court. For example, after treatment of cataracts, which is designated an A-bomb disease, whether or not the survivor plaintiff would be able to receive compensation for follow-up visits to physicians. With the aim of handing down a unified decision, I believe the Supreme Court once again listened to the arguments of both the A-bomb survivors and the national government.

What did you bring up in the hearing?
The important point is how the “need for medical treatment” is interpreted as written in the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, which defines A-bomb diseases. I decided to not focus on discussing the law. Instead, I had the plaintiffs explain where they had experienced the atomic bombing and the suffering they went through since that time. I claimed that what was in question was the court’s attitude toward protecting the human rights of survivors.

You argued that was more important than interpretation of the law.
Some people say that speaking of things other than the law in court is only oration, but I disagree. In particular, the recognition of A-bomb diseases has been determined on the basis of the government’s policy-related judgments rather than medical ones. If arguments consist of nothing but the law, the problem can be trivialized. I wanted to avoid that.

Tell us more about what you mean by policy-related judgments.
The certification of A-bomb diseases, including cancer and cataracts, is made comprehensively based on certain conditions such as distance from the hypocenter or activities that the person was engaged in at the time.

At a glance, this process might seem medical in nature. But if someone develops cancer decades after the atomic bombing, the cancer could be the result of the person’s lifestyle choices such as smoking. It is impossible to draw any definitive conclusion. After all, the line is drawn somewhere arbitrarily. And where to draw that line depends on the national budget.

You mean that the nation’s financial circumstances determine whether or not a disease is determined to result from the atomic bombing?
Exactly. During past lawsuits, we had the government submit official documents regarding the process of formulating the Atomic Bomb Medical Relief Law, the predecessor to the Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. The documents indicated discussions were being held to provide allowances for disease and disability resulting from the A-bomb’s thermal rays and blast, in addition to radiation, but that they had to “define limits because of budget constraints.”

That is truly a policy-based decision.
But the judiciary’s stance has to be different. Our only focus should be on whether or not survivors’ human rights are protected under the constitution. Since 2003, plaintiffs won more than 90 percent of the class-action lawsuits seeking A-bomb disease recognition. Even after the certification standards were revised in 2014, plaintiffs won in more than 80 percent of the cases.

The judiciary has continued to point out that the national government’s compensation to those forced to live as A-bomb survivors has been insufficient.

Have you always had an interest in A-bomb survivors?
I was born and raised in Kobe, so I had almost no knowledge about the atomic bombings or survivors. But when an attorney of my acquaintance asked me to join a legal defense team, I thought I would be able to take advantage of my long experience in lawsuits involving work-related accidents and social security. With the idea that I could be of use to survivors, I joined that legal team 17 years ago.

So, it was by simple chance.
This series of lawsuits will be among the last of my career. I am so grateful for having met those survivors.

It is not easy to file lawsuits. Many survivors do not want people to recognize them as survivors. Still, they stand in court not because they want to settle their own problems, but they really want people to realize that atomic bombings must never happen again. I have come to be keenly aware of the phrase, “No more hibakusha.” I now believe had I not met the survivors I would not have been able to complete my career as an attorney.

Seigo Fujiwara
Born in Chuo Ward, Kobe. Graduated from the school of law at Osaka University. Registered as an attorney in 1967. Among others, involved in the “Horiki Case,” which was a lawsuit over the constitutionality of not providing both welfare pension for people with disabilities and child-rearing allowances. The Grand Bench of the Supreme Court in Japan heard the case. Served as vice president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and the chairman of the federation’s Human Rights Commission. Director of the NPO the Hyogo Center for Persons with Disabilities. Member of the Kobe Bar Association. Co-authored the publication “Social Security Revolution.”

■ Following the interview

Mr. Fujiwara said that a judge told him he had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum before writing a decision. This must have been because A-bomb survivors’ accounts convinced the judge of the need to learn the reality of the atomic bombing in writing the decision. It is hoped that the Supreme Court will formulate its decision based on actual circumstances.

(Originally published on February 19, 2020)