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Chronology of events related to Minamata disease

Japan Economic Newswire
MINAMATA, Japan, May 1_(Kyodo)
KEY EVENTS RELATED TO MINAMATA DISEASE
August 1908 — Chisso Corp. starts operations at its factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.
May 1932 — Chisso starts producing acetaldehyde at the Minamata factory.
May 1956 — A local health center in Minamata receives a report about four patients suffering unexplained encephalopathy, which became known as Minamata disease.
Feb. 1963 — Kumamoto University researchers conclude the disease was caused by methylmercury.
June 1965 — Another organic mercury poisoning case involving a different company is detected in Niigata Prefecture, in the second occurrence of Minamata disease.
May 1968 — Chisso stops producing acetaldehyde.
Sept. 1968 — The state designates Minamata disease as a pollution-triggered disease caused by a methylmercury compound from Chisso’s factory.
June 1969 — A group of Minamata disease patients files the first damages suit against Chisso with the Kumamoto District Court.
March 1973 — The plaintiffs at the Kumamoto District Court win the damages suit.
July 1995 — Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologizes for the delay in providing relief to the Minamata disease patients.
Oct. 1995 — Five patients groups decide to accept the so-called political settlement proposal, under which uncertified patients each received a 2.6 million yen lump sum and allowances.
Oct. 2004 — The Supreme Court makes the first judgment recognizing the government had responsibility for preventing the spread of Minamata disease, ordering the state and Kumamoto Prefecture to pay a total of 71.5 million yen in compensation to 37 patients. The ruling also let stand a lower court decision that set forth less restrictive criteria than the state’s in recognizing the disease.
Oct. 2005 — A group of uncertified Minamata disease patients in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures file a damages suit with the Kumamoto District Court against the state, Kumamoto Prefecture and Chisso, demanding 8.5 million yen in compensation each.
May 2006 — The city of Minamata marks the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata disease.

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The tragedy of Minamata has no end in sight

05/03/2006
In 1956, a government economic white paper proclaimed the nation had finally emerged from the chaos of the aftermath of World War II.
That year, the government also officially recognized the outbreak of what was later known as Minamata disease.
Twenty-two prime ministers, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, have been elected since then. But none has ever officially visited Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. Koizumi’s absence was conspicuous Monday, the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata disease.
Members of a support group for victims marked the anniversary with a visit to the site where the hospital attached to Chisso Corp. once stood. This hospital treated patients diagnosed with the disease, caused by consuming mercury-contaminated fish.
An 81-year-old certified patient, whose 49-year-old daughter was poisoned in utero through the contaminated food her mother ate, said: “The government should be ashamed that it still hasn’t solved the problems of uncertified patients after half a century. This is a sad anniversary.”
A memorial service was held by the city of Minamata and other groups at a cenotaph dedicated to Minamata disease victims. Attending dignitaries included Environment Minister Yuriko Koike.
This prayer is engraved on the stone: “May you rest in peace, all souls in the Shiranui Sea. We will never repeat this tragedy.” The words echo those inscribed on the cenotaph for A-bomb victims in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
“We will never repeat this mistake,” says the Hiroshima cenotaph. Mankind must never again allow the devastation from a nuclear blast or the discharge of organic mercury that caused Minamata disease in the Shiranui Sea.
The Minamata cenotaph uses the word “tragedy” to describe the mass mercury poisoning.
Koizumi, too, used the word in his official statement prior to the Minamata anniversary: “Lest we ever repeat this tragedy … .” But the word doesn’t sound right coming from the mouth of someone representing a government that failed to avert it.
It seemed to me that Koizumi’s choice of the word “tragedy” implied it was all in the past. In drama, a tragedy has a beginning and an end. But the tragedy of Minamata is not yet over.
–The Asahi Shimbun, May 2(IHT/Asahi: May 3,2006)

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Koizumi issues official Minamata apology

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.
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“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.

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Memorial service marks Minamata tragedy's 50th year

JAPAN TIMES
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.
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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.

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50 years on the front lines of Minamata

TARO NISHIJIMA, YOMIURI SHIMBUN STAFF WRITER, May 1, 2006
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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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