For decades asbestos has been known to cause cancer in those who inhale its tiny fibers. That has triggered restrictions on its use and, ultimately, thousands of lawsuits in the U.S. and elsewhere. But in Japan, asbestos barely cracked the headlines over the years, let alone the court system. It was only last October that Tokyo finally banned asbestos in all but a handful of products -- 14 years after similar action in the U.S. Even then the government implemented no measures to prevent asbestos -- once widely used as fire-retardant insulation -- from being released into the air as older buildings were renovated or torn down.
Today the carcinogen is suddenly big news from Kyushu to Hokkaido. On June 29, farm machinery maker Kubota Corp. (KUB ) acknowledged, in response to inquiries from the daily Mainichi Shimbun, that since 1978, 79 of its workers had died after inhaling asbestos fibers. Within days dozens of companies reported previously undisclosed fatalities blamed on asbestos. Now the government is scrambling to explain why it paid scant attention to the issue for so long. "We should have banned asbestos sooner," Health, Labor, & Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji told a parliamentary committee on Aug. 3.
Some of Japan Inc.'s biggest names are grappling with the problem. Workers at top steelmaker JFE Holdings (JFEEF ) were exposed to asbestos in insulation until the company stopped using it in the 1970s. Taiheiyo Cement Corp., Japan's leading cement producer, made asbestos tiles and insulation. Sumitomo Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries installed asbestos insulation in ships. "Asbestos is still around in so many forms, it's like an environmental time bomb waiting to go off," says Hirotada Hirose, a Tokyo Women's Christian University professor.
The government has tried to calm an uneasy public. In recent weeks it has set up phone banks to field calls from citizens worried about asbestos exposure and toughened regulations on demolishing buildings. The government estimates that 6,060 people died of mesothelioma -- a cancer caused by asbestos -- from 1995 to 2003. That's a fraction of the 200,000-plus deaths in the U.S. that have been blamed on asbestos over the past 40 years, but Japan's statistics are incomplete because it only began keeping track in 1995 as the toll mounted. Given the country's tardy response to the problem, the number may continue to climb for decades to come, since asbestos fibers can remain in the body for 40 years before developing into cancer.
With a parliamentary election in September, it could be months before lawmakers debate compensation for those exposed to asbestos. After revealing its asbestos problem, Kubota acknowledged that it had paid "condolence money" of up to $270,000 to the families of dozens of workers. Kubota says its prompt action after halting asbestos production in 2001 may help it avoid lawsuits. Other corporations say they followed Kubota's lead to avoid the appearance of a coverup. Nonetheless, "companies should be held responsible for paying some of the damages to victims," says Satomi Ushijima, who chairs a Tokyo Bar Assn. committee on asbestos.
So far, Japan's track record on compensation isn't terrific. Japanese culture shuns the notion of legal redress through the courts, and class actions are banned, so only a handful of asbestos-related cases have been brought. On Aug. 3, the Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit by the wife of a man who died of mesothelioma but whose only traceable link to asbestos had been his father, a factory worker. And just 848 people with mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer have applied for free medical treatment under workers' compensation. The country is finally catching up with the rest of the world on asbestos removal. Now it must care for those who have already been exposed.
By Kenji Hall in Tokyo