In these troubled times, many may find themselves wondering what the purpose of government really is. Is the primary duty of the state to look after its citizens or to maintain “order” and what exactly is the limit of the state’s responsibility towards those most in need of its care? Director Kazuo Hara had made a career of examining the lives of those who dared to defy the system, but his latest film Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Nipponkoku vs Sennan Ishiwata Mura) focusses not on an individual but on a group of ordinary people attempting to stand up to governmental bureaucracy after having been betrayed by successive administrations who put economic prosperity ahead of citizens’ welfare.
Asbestos was hailed as something of a wonder for its highly useful properties including sound insulation, fire proofing, strength and durability. Increasing in use throughout the industrial revolution, the harmful affects of asbestos were first discovered in the early 20th century but its use across most of the world was not banned until the turn of the millennium following long campaigns by those whose health had been adversely affected by breathing in its fibres leading to long term respiratory issues and even a risk of cancer.
In Sennan, in the South West of Japan, asbestos production was the dominant economy stretching back into the Meiji era. Concerns had been raised about the possible harmful effects of asbestos before the war and then again afterwards, but successive governments chose to do nothing while workers remained unaware of the risks even while noticing that many of their friends and family members were dying young often of respiratory conditions. Most only became aware that asbestos was dangerous in 2005 following a national scandal known as the “Kubota Shock” in which a well respected manufacturer of machinery was forced to admit that as much as 10% of its workforce had died of asbestos-related conditions.
Hara follows a collective of Sennan residents who have come together to file a class action law suit against the government for failing to ensure safety standards in asbestos production. Led by Kazuyoshi Yuoka whose grandfather owned an asbestos factory before the war, the group members are mainly older men and women who worked in the factories during the economically straitened days of the immediate post-war period. Though many point to the otherwise progressive nature of the factories which were desperate to attract workers and keen to foster a community spirit as well as offering other benefits including access to education, it is true that many of the employees were among those already facing other kinds of oppression aside from the economic – the uneducated rural poor, women, and a large number of minorities including zainichi Koreans. This information is important because it exposes the truth that the state decided these people were expendable and could be sacrificed in the name of the economic prosperity that was deemed necessary in order to rebuild the nation after its crushing wartime defeat.
Unlike the protagonists of Hara’s previous films, the Sennan campaigners are ordinary people – those assumed to have very little social power pressuring their government to take responsibility for having wilfully abandoned them. Unsurprisingly, the government is not very keen to do so. The legal case drags on eight years during which many of the sufferers die while their children or spouses continue the quest for justice. The case itself is wider than it first seems, extending not just to factory workers but to those exposed by general proximity such as famers owning land near asbestos plants and in one poignant case a woman whose parents took her to the factory while they worked when she was a child.
Forming a tightly knit community, the campaigners present a united front but come up against the wall of bureaucracy. As time wears on it’s difficult not to feel a small amount of sympathy for the junior civil servants the government trots out to deal with angry protestors, forced to repeat the same tired phrases without explanation while the group insist on seeing someone with a bit more clout, but even when the case is finally proved, progress is slow and the ritual apology as hollow as it always is. Yet even if some are angered by the perfunctory nature of professional atonement, others actively embrace it and appear grateful even for this small shred of attention from the authority. It’s here that Hara wavers in his sympathy, admiring the kindhearted solidarity of the protestors but lamenting their tendency towards feudal deference when they should be raging against a society which is often content to exploit and discard them, remaining accidentally complicit in enabling a gradual decline of democratic freedoms.
Nevertheless, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is the chronicle of a (partially) successful campaign in which a group of concerned citizens working within the law eventually force the government to concede an error, even if that concession may turn out to have no wider application. The victory, however, can’t bring back lost time nor ease past suffering and only serves to draw a line under one chapter of a struggle which is sadly far from over.
Sennan Asbestos Disaster was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.
Original trailer (English subtitles)