Memorial service marks Minamata tragedy's 50th year

MINAMATA, Kumamoto Pref. — Japan marked on Monday the 50th anniversary of the recognition of Minamata disease, a malady caused by pollution that officials were slow to confront and whose sufferers include thousands still seeking recognition and compensation.
A mother and her children pray in front of a small Buddha for the victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, on Monday, the 50th anniversary of the government’s official recognition of the disease named after this coastal town.
About 600 people, including victims from around the country, attended a memorial service in this town along Minamata Bay that became infamous for the mercury poisoning from a Chisso Corp. plant. Officials originally expected about 1,000 people, but occasional rain and strong winds may have kept some people away.
Environment Minister Yuriko Koike and Chisso Chairman Shunkichi Goto, whose plant, which dates to the early 1930s, was blamed for causing the tragedy by dumping organic mercury into the bay for decades, were among the attendees. Although May 1 is the day the disease was officially recognized, the outbreak was believed to have occurred years earlier.
One by one, officials stepped forward, offering prayers and flowers in front of a stone memorial where small clay figurines of shellfish lay at its base. “To all life forms lost in the Shiranui Sea. This tragedy will not be repeated. Rest in peace,” the inscription reads.
Minamata disease victims, some horribly disfigured and wheelchair-bound, also offered prayers and testimonials of a half century of discrimination and prejudice, both from the residents of Minamata itself and society at large.
“We were actually blamed for catching the disease. And when we originally sought assistance from local authorities, all we were told was that Chisso couldn’t possibly be responsible and that we were causing trouble,” said Tsuginori Hamamoto, chairman of the Minamata Disease Victims Association.
Hamamoto and the victims say many issues regarding Minamata disease victims remain unsolved. Uppermost in their minds are the thousands who suffer from symptoms but have not been recognized by the government as victims and are thus ineligible for compensation.


Tuesday, May 02 2006
Fifty years after the first person was diagnosed in Japan’s worst case of industrial poisoning, thousands of other victims of Minamata disease are still fighting for compensation.
More than 900 people died and thousands were left disfigured after eating seafood contaminated with mercury pumped into the sea off the town of Minamata in southwest Japan by Chisso, a chemical manufacturer.
Yesterday victims and campaigners were due to mark the anniversary with a memorial and calls for the stringent criteria for official recognition — which entitles patients to financial help and medical care — to be relaxed. More than 10,000 people have applied for government recognition, only 2,265 successfully.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the state was responsible for allowing the pollution to continue unchecked and set less rigid criteria for official recognition, more than 3,500 people launched claims. Campaigners said up to 30,000 people could have developed symptoms.
The worst affected died painful, miserable deaths as the mercury destroyed their central nervous system. Survivors experienced symptoms such as seizures and tunnel vision.
In an unprecedented move, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologised for the failure.

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