Media Mix, June 5, 2021

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a recent Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of construction workers who were suing the government over their exposure to asbestos. As pointed out by a reader, Christina Tsuchida, the UK and the U.S., among others, abide by the concept of sovereign immunity, which means, in principle, you can’t sue your government (though in the U.S., at least, there are circumstances where you can sue for negligence or bodily harm, apparently). So the question is: What makes Japan different? Obviously, the idea that one has a right to make a claim against the government is not something the plaintiffs in the cases I cite will find much comfort in, but it must have been discussed when Japan was finalizing its legal system years ago. Tsuchida ventures that “to discourage minorities’ revenge on majority rule, countries like Japan must have such a possibly long process for success.” In other words, the government leaves itself exposed to retribution for some perceived wrong but makes sure that any liability it is forced to bear as a result will be very hard won. This opens a huge can of worms, since it not only touches on the bureaucratic workings of such lawsuits, as explained in the column, but the way the judicial branch of the Japanese government operates. Japanese judges, after all, are hired to be judges out of law school; which could explain the often arbitrary nature of the decisions they hand down. Critics tend to say that since Japanese judges are beholden to the government for their livelihoods (in terms of promotion, etc.), they tend to side with the authorities, but in the asbestos cases they tended to side with plaintiffs, and though the merit of the plaintiffs’ complaint seemed obvious—the government for many years did not completely ban asbestos even after it was found to be carcinogenic—such clear-cut arguments often run up against technicalities, such as the government’s assertion that only construction workers who work as company employees can receive relief for asbestos harm in the form of workman’s compensation. In the end, it was only the Supreme Court’s decision that made a difference for the (surviving) plaintiffs because the government would always appeal, so in a sense it didn’t matter what the lower judges said at all. People have the right to sue their government, and in the end they may likely win, but they have to be angry enough in order to survive the judicial process. The process itself seems to guarantee that anger.

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