By HIROKO NAKATA, JAPAN TIMES
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Friday issued the first formal apology by a prime minister for the state’s failure to deal properly with Minamata disease, one of the worst pollution-caused maladies and one that erupted during the nation’s speedy economic growth of the 1950s.
“The government feels a deep responsibility and offers a frank apology for failing to take appropriate steps for a long period of time or to prevent the spread of Minamata disease,” said Koizumi’s statement, which was read out by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.
The apology comes just ahead of Monday’s 50th anniversary of the first recognized report of the disease, caused by environmental mercury poisoning by Chisso Corp.
“We should never allow pollution-related diseases to occur in the future,” Koizumi told reporters later in the day.
As of the end of March, 2,955 people were recognized as having contracted the disease, according to the Environment Ministry. Of them, 2,009 have died.
The Supreme Court ruled in October 2004 that the government shared responsibility for the disease. It also broadened the criteria for recognizing victims set by the government in 1977.
Abe, who read the the prime minister’s statement at a news conference, indicated the government would not change its criteria.
However, he said the government would have to take “firm measures” to respond to criticism that medical and financial relief for the victims has been too slow.
The disease was caused by poisoning from mercury-contaminated waste water being dumped at Chisso’s synthetic resin factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.
On May 1, 1956, a local public health center received a report that four people were suffering from an unexplained brain malady.
It was only discovered later that the chemical maker had been poisoning the environment with the mercury-filled water.
Minamata disease has killed and maimed thousands of people, and has led to an unusually high number of birth defects in the area.
A group of people the state has refused to recognize as having Minamata disease filed a damages suit last October against the central and Kumamoto Prefectural governments and Chisso.
Rally to mark 50th anniversary of Minamata disease to be held
TOKYO, April 29 2006
Hundreds of Minamata disease patients and their supporters will march through downtown Tokyo on Saturday prior to the 50th anniversary of its official recognition on May 1.
Carrying deep-blue sashes symbolizing the Shiranui Sea, around which the disease broke out, and the salt of the ocean, the participants will visit several Minamata disease-related points.
They include the building of the Environment Ministry, the main government agency dealing with the Minamata issue, and the site of the former headquarters of Chisso Corp., which caused the disease by dumping mercury-laced wastewater from its synthetic resin factory into rivers in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, where it poisoned fishes that were subsequently eaten by humans.
Minamata disease was officially recognized on May 1, 1956, when a local public health center received a report that four patients were suffering from an unexplained encephalopathy, termed merely “a strange disease.” The disease was later detected in Niigata Prefecture.
As of the end of last March, 2,955 people in Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Niigata prefectures had been officially recognized as patients, of whom 2,009 have already died, according to the Environment Ministry.
However, there are many others who have not been recognized and are still applying for recognition to receive medical support.
More than 3,800 people have filed applications with local authorities since the Supreme Court held the state and Kumamoto Prefecture responsible in October 2004 for the spread of the disease and set less rigid standards for recognizing victims than the state’s standard set in 1977.
Some of the unrecognized patients filed a damages suit last October against the state, Kumamoto Prefecture and Chisso, indicating the existence of latent patients, although no one has been recognized as a patient since December 2000.
Prior to the 50th anniversary, both lower and upper houses of the Diet adopted resolutions vowing not to allow such pollution to occur again while urging the government to fully support the victims of the disease and their families.
On Monday, a memorial service will be held in Minamata, with patients, bereaved families and Environment Minister Yuriko Koike attending.