Woman speaks of 'stray cat' lives of Minamata disease family

Japan Economic Newswire
A woman told a public meeting in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, on Sunday of the hardships Minamata disease had caused her family, saying, “We led lives like stray cats.”
Her two younger sisters were among the four people in Minamata who were reported as having a “strange disease” on May 1, 1956, now regarded as the day on which the degenerative neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning was officially recognized.
Speaking on condition of anonymity on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the disease being formally acknowledged, she said, “As my sisters were initially believed to have caught a contagious disease, our house was sterilized.”
One of the two sisters eventually died, and the woman, 62, has been taking care of the other, who was three years old when she was diagnosed. “My sister used to laugh when she felt good, but she cannot eat well at present.”
“I myself sleep in my bed only once or twice a week,” she said, explaining how she has to keep checking on her sister, who is often seized with cramps. “For us, the issue of Minamata disease is still continuing.”
Another speaker at the meeting, Shinobu Sakamoto, who will be 50 in July, appealed to some 150 participants about the concerns that congenital Minamata disease patients like her have.
“I am now with my parents, but I feel insecure when I think about my future life,” she said.
Referring to the fact that more than 3,800 unrecognized sufferers are applying for recognition even now, Sakamoto said, “Minamata disease is as old as I am, but the problem is not yet over.”
In a separate move, thousands of Minamata disease victims were commemorated at a newly installed memorial in a bayside park Sunday evening prior to an anniversary memorial service there on Monday.
Minamata Mayor Katsuaki Miyamoto said at the commemoration ceremony, “We should not forget the memories of the victims or this unprecedented pollution.”
“I hope the next 50 years will be a time full of gratitude,” he said.
Traditional local drumming was performed in front of the new memorial in order to pay respect to the victims.
Minamata disease was caused by mercury-laced wastewater from a synthetic resin factory of Chisso Corp. in Minamata, southwestern Japan.
Organizers of the public gathering, which was called a “Meeting to Inquire About the 74 Years of Minamata Disease,” said the outbreak dated back to 1932, when Chisso started producing acetaldehyde at the Minamata factory.
Up until the end of last March, 2,955 people in Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Niigata prefectures have been recognized as victims of the disease, of whom more than 2,000 have died, according to the Environment Ministry.

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