50 years on the front lines of Minamata

Miyako Kawamoto talks about her late husband in front of what used to be Chisso headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday.

As 500 people marched through central Tokyo on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata mercury poisoning as a disease. Miyako Kawamoto–wife of one of the sufferers’ most prominent activitists–discussed with The Yomiuri Shimbun her life and role in bringing attention to the deadly illness.
Kawamoto, 75, wife of Teruo Kawamoto, who died in 1999 after campaigning for decades for patients of Minamata disease, stared up at a skyscraper completed in autumn in Marunouchi, Tokyo.
“Back then, I was so amazed to see such a big building,” Kawamoto recalled as she marched with other participants in the event, organized by nonprofit organization Minamata-Forum. Some of the protesters held a banner that read “on” (resentment) as they visited the Environment Ministry, a building where the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Food Sanitation Investigation Council held meetings, and other Minamata-disease related sites.
In 1959, the council determined that Minamata disease was caused by a kind of organic mercury compound.
In December 1971, Kawamoto visited her husband as he staged a sit-in outside the former headquarters of Chisso Corp., whose Minamata factory in Kumamoto Prefecture was determined by the government in 1968 to have caused the disease by releasing contaminated water.
It was her first time to visit Tokyo. Kawamoto, who lives in Minamata, said she was impressed by her husband’s ability to carry out his mission in such a place.
Looking up at a 33-story building, Kawamoto wondered aloud, “What would my husband have said if he saw this?”
After she married Teruo and moved in with his family in Minamata in 1957, she saw his father tie a rubber band around one of his toes, which became swollen and became purple. “It’s more comfortable this way,” he explained to her.
Numb hands and feet are a typical symptom of Minamata disease.
Before long, Teruo’s father started to have terrible fits, ultimately dying in 1965.
As Minamata’s economy at the time revolved around Chisso, few sufferers of the disease were willing to finger the company.
“Why should he die? Why should the patients hide their afflictions?” Teruo would complain to Miyako.
As his own hands and feet began to feel numb, Teruo began visiting his neighbors in hopes of persuading them to take a stand against the company and other responsible entities.
Many said they did not want people to think they were in it for money, but Teruo told them they should not forgive those responsible for their illness.
As Teruo concentrated on his campaign, Kawamoto took her husband’s place as breadwinner. She worked at construction sites and a timber company, later working for 28 years as an assistant nurse.
Teruo staged a sit-in protest in front of Chisso headquarters for about 20 months.
During that time, Kawamoto spent many sleepless nights, as many of their neighbors held grudges against her husband because they were dependent on Chisso.
At night, she often was aware of people surrounding her house. Teruo told her to be prepared to escape from the house at any given moment. She also received insulting anonymous phone calls.
However, Kawamoto never told her husband about these incidents. She said: “My husband was risking his life for other people–how could I complain?”
In 1973, the Kumamoto District Court ordered Chisso to compensate the victims. In 1994, the then mayor of Minamata apologized to the patients for the first time.
Five years later, Teruo died.
At the behest of the Minamata municipal Minamata disease library, Kawamoto began teaching in January 2002 the history of Minamata disease and the struggle the sufferers have endured.
She has continued this task despite asthma and aching legs.
Kawamoto said she became convinced she had not been wrong to support her husband when she saw people cry as they listened to her tales.
When praying to her family altar, she says, she often tells her lost loved ones, “I’ll continue my mission as long as I can.”

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