50 years later, victims of Minamata Disease still fight for justice

New America Media, Commentary, Christopher Reed, Apr 26, 2006
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Photo, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by W. Eugene Smith, Minamata, 1972, courtesy of Masters of Photography
On May 1, Japan will take long-overdue steps to more fully recognize a neurological disease caused by industrial pollution in Minamata Bay.
TOKYO–Like a war widow, 74-year-old Sumiko Kaneko still remembers her husband, who died when she was only 25, and her younger boy, who did not survive infancy. Today she cares for her eldest son, now 50, who has lived a wheelchair for the last nine years.
Kaneko did not suffer her losses in war, but from a terrible illness that afflicts her, too. It is Minamata disease, caused by manufacturing pollution in Japan, and an international symbol of the dangers of unchecked industrial development in the modern world.
On May 1, Japan marks the 50th anniversary of the first official report of what would later emerge as the years-long dumping of tons of highly dangerous organic mercury into Minamata Bay by a chemical firm. The pollution blighted the lives of thousands, killed many hundreds and has yet to be resolved. A ceremony will be held Monday, when prime minister Junichiro Koizumi will apologize.
But like Japan’s belated attempts to atone for World War II atrocities, sorrowful words will not satisfy. Still angry at decades of evasion, lies and intimidation are the government-certified 2,995 afflicted, relatives of the 1,784 dead, the 16,289 unrecognized claimants and possibly two million damaged in some way by the neurological disorder (all statistics open to challenge, because of conflicting accounts).
The anniversary marks the day an official of the small town of Minamata on the west coast of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu received a formal report of four patients suffering a mysterious malady. The sickness caused numbness, eyesight loss, tremors, difficulty walking, extreme stabbing pains, lapses of consciousness, severe convulsions, coma and sometimes death.
But residents were suspicious before May 1, 1956. The disease had already provoked the deaths of dozens of Minamata’s pet cats, who hurled themselves off jetties. Then, people were behaving strangely, shouting and acting crazy. All of them — including the cats — had something in common. They ate lots of local fish.
Already some residents were pointing fingers at the only industry in the locality other than fishing, the powerful Chisso corporation and its large petro-chemical factory by Minamata Bay. It had been there under changing titles since 1906, making fertilizer and, since 1941, vinyl chloride, a process involving a compound of mercury. Chisso was known to have dumped tons of waste sludge into the bay; local fishermen had long complained.
Soon after the first report, it was discovered that 17 people in the area had died. A medical research team at nearby Kumamoto University was alerted, but two years later no definitive cause had been found. One difficulty was a local taboo on speaking ill of Chisso, the major employer. Even though mercury was a suspect, the firm kept its use of the compound a secret, while attacking the research.
Finally in 1959, the team published an interim report blaming mercury, but by then local fishermen were out of business as more people became ill and seafood was suspected. That November, as Chisso resisted compensation payments, the fishermen rioted, broke into the company and destroyed equipment. The Tokyo media awoke to the dire events in faraway Kyushu.
But as the years passed, Chisso continued to obstruct and resist, abandoning the mercury compound only in 1968. The local government also prevaricated, and government ministries in Tokyo did not help — in fact they hindered, terminating the university research grant, for instance. It was even suggested the disease had run its course.
Minamata disease was not a passing affliction, however. People continued to fall ill and die. In 1965, a second, smaller outbreak erupted in northern Niigata prefecture, caused by another chemical firm.
The Ministry of Health finally officially recognized the disease and its cause in 1968. Yet still, despite court cases and political action, such as a “camp out” at Chisso’s Tokyo headquarters, obtaining redress was slow. Not until 1977 were government-recognized criteria established to define a sufferer, but this remains controversial even today.
In 1988, the Supreme Court overturned the appeal against a 1979 guilty verdict on Chisso executives for corporate malfeasance, but they were not imprisoned. The company paid out millions of dollars over the years, but new lawsuits against the criteria system still proliferate. Only in 2004 did the Supreme Court finally uphold a lawsuit by 45 plaintiffs.
A new screening system for Minamata entitlements is to be formed — starting in 2007. And on April 25 the Japanese parliament’s lower house passed a resolution calling for increased government help — its first such action.
Nobuo Miyazawa, a journalist who has followed the case for years, offers a chilling verdict: “…all the parties except the victims, making excuses and avoiding what they needed to do … Minamata is a disease that was willfully inflicted.”

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