TOKYO -- Japan's top court ordered the government yesterday to pay $703,000 in damages to victims of the Minamata mercury poisoning, 22 years after their famous case was filed over an industrial pollution disaster that killed more than 1,700 people and caused diseased mothers to give birth to deformed babies.
After the decision, several plaintiffs rushed from the courthouse and unfurled a banner declaring their victory to cheering supporters. The government apologized to victims for failing to prevent the pollution.
''We assure you that this horrific incident won't ever be repeated," Environment Minister Yuriko Koike said, making a deep bow to plaintiffs in a meeting after the verdict. ''The government will tell about the lessons learned here for generations to come."
The Minamata poisoning was Japan's worst case of industrial pollution. Since the 1950s, hundreds of people have contracted Minamata disease -- a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning -- from eating tainted fish. The disease, first discovered in the 1950s, was named for Minamata Bay in southern Japan where a company dumped tons of mercury compounds.
Babies of poisoned mothers were born with gnarled limbs. The victims were seared into memory by a famous series of photographs by W. Eugene Smith from the 1970s, including one of a woman holding her deformed child in a bathtub.
The case came to symbolize the dark side of Japan's remarkable growth to the world's second-largest economy in the post World War II era.
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a high court ruling from April 2001, bringing an end to the case filed more than two decades ago, court officials said.
The court said the government and Kumamoto prefecture failed to stop chemical manufacturer Chisso Corp. from dumping tons of mercury compounds into Minamata Bay beginning in the 1930s, said Satoe Nagashima, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
''I have devoted my life to this moment for the past 22 years. It felt like it went by quickly," Toshiyuki Kawakami, head of the plaintiffs' group, told a news conference.
''I'm satisfied," Kawakami said, but added: ''There are still many more patients."
Chisso Corp., based in Tokyo, had accepted a 2001 high court ruling ordering it to pay some $2.18 million in damages to the plaintiffs. The company declined to comment yesterday.
The case revealed how government officials had looked the other way for years as Chisso violated pollution laws.
The suit was originally filed by 40 plaintiffs in October 1982 at the Osaka District Court. When the Osaka High Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2001, the group had grown to 58.
By yesterday, there were 45, including 15 relatives of plaintiffs who had died.
Nagashima said 37 plaintiffs were awarded between $13,700 and $22,800 in compensation, depending on the seriousness of their illness.
Claims by the remaining eight were rejected because they had moved from Minamata, about 560 miles southwest of Tokyo, before 1960, Nagashima said.
According to government figures, 2,955 people contracted Minamata disease, and 1,784 people have since died. Under a special law, victims can receive free medical care and compensation.
Another 12,000 people who were sickened had received a one-time government payout but weren't eligible for free medical care. The plaintiffs were among this group and sued to force the government, Kumamoto prefecture, and Chisso to accept responsibility for causing the sickness, as well as to ask for more compensation.
The Environment Ministry said yesterday that it had no plans to change the special law.