Minamata 50 Years On


The discovery of alarming levels of cancer-causing dioxin among Sydney Harbour fishermen has rightly upset Australians, but in Japan they are marking a grim anniversary of just how much harm industrial pollution can cause. It is both a reminder and a lesson.

It was 50 years ago this week that a municipal official first heard about a mysterious malady that had stricken local folk in the bayside town of Minamata, in the southern island of Kyushu. A number of cats in the town had recently committed suicide a bizarre occurrence, but an ominous indicator of the unprecedented horrors to come. The town had produced a new disease.

Like the Sydney dioxin, it was caused by deadly chemicals released into the water by a manufacturing plant, but in Japan’s case, it amounted to tons over decades. Its people are still paying the price for what the world now knows as ‘Minamata disease,’ an international symbol of the dangers of unchecked industrial development in the modern world.

The pollution, caused by organic mercury produced by the Chisso petro-chemical company, blighted the lives of thousands, has killed many hundreds, and even today is yet to be resolved. A ceremony was held on the anniversary on Monday and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi finally issued a formal apology to the people of Minamata last Friday.

But like Japan’s belated attempts to atone for World War II atrocities, sorrowful words will not satisfy. Still angry at decades of evasion, lies, and intimidation, are the 2,995 people who are recognised by the Government as having been afflicted; relatives of the 1,784 dead; the 16,289 unrecognised claimants; and the tens of thousands who have some symptoms but are not recognised as officially ill (all statistics open to challenge, because of conflicting accounts).

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath(Minamata, 1972) by W. Eugene Smith

May 1, 1956 was when the official in the small Kyushu town received a formal report on four patients suffering a mysterious malady. It caused numbness, loss of eyesight, tremors, difficulty walking, extreme stabbing pains, lapses of consciousness, severe convulsions, coma and, sometimes, death. Later it was found to have harmed children yet to be born.

Yet it was not the first news of the disease. It had already provoked the suicide of dozens of the town’s cats, which had hurled themselves off jetties. Then, people had been noticed behaving strangely, shouting and acting crazily. All of those affected including the cats had one thing in common: they ate lots of local fish.

Already some residents were suspicious of the only industry in the locality other than fishing the powerful Chisso corporation and its large factory by the bay. It had been there under changing titles making fertiliser since 1906, and vinyl chloride, a process involving a compound of mercury, since 1941.

The company had always been authoritarian and uncaring of its employees they were ‘equivalent to cows and horses’ said the firm’s founder. Chisso took the same view about the surrounding environment and was known to have dumped masses of waste sludge into the bay. Local fishermen had long complained.

Soon after the first illness report, it was discovered that 17 people in the area had died. A medical research team at nearby Kumamoto University was alerted, but two years later no definitive cause had been found. One difficulty was a local taboo on speaking ill of Chisso, the major employer. Although mercury was a suspect, the firm kept its use a secret, while attacking the research.

Finally in 1959, the team published an interim report blaming mercury, but by then local fishermen were out of business as more people became ill and seafood was suspected. That November, as Chisso resisted compensation payments, the fishermen rioted, broke in, and destroyed equipment. The Tokyo media awoke to the dire events in faraway Kyushu.

But as the years passed, Chisso continued to obstruct and resist, only abandoning the mercury compound in 1968. The local government also prevaricated, and government ministries in Tokyo did not help in fact they hindered: terminating the university research grant, for instance. It was even suggested the disease had run its course.

Minamata disease was not a passing affliction, however. People continued to fall ill and die. In 1965 a second smaller outbreak erupted in northern Niigata prefecture, caused by another chemical firm.

The Ministry of Health finally officially recognised the disease and its cause in 1968. Yet still despite court cases, protest demonstrations, and political action such as a ‘camp out’ at Chisso’s Tokyo headquarters obtaining redress was slow. Not until 1977 were government-accepted criteria established to define a sufferer, but these remain controversial even today.

In 1988 the Supreme Court overturned the appeal against a 1979 guilty verdict on Chisso executives for corporate malfeasance, but they were not sentenced to prison. The company claims to have paid out $US1.3 billion over the years, but new lawsuits against the criteria system still proliferate. Only in 2004 did the Supreme Court finally uphold a case brought by 45 plaintiffs.

After 50 years, is Minamata disease a tragedy that should still grip us? It continues to grip the people of the town.

Consider the harrowed life of 74-year-old Sumiko Kaneko, still grieving for her husband who died when she was only 25, and for her younger boy, who did not survive beyond 29 days after birth. She continues daily care for her elder son Yuji, now 50, who has been in a wheelchair for the last nine years. She also suffers from the disease herself.

Not only has she and the rest of her family suffered illness and death, but they have also endured the ostracism and prejudice of others. Minamata disease, caused by the negligence and inhumanity of one company, manifested itself in the inhumanity of ordinary people, who shunned victims as bearers of a possibly contagious affliction.

Kaneko’s three granddaughters from her eldest son shunned any mention of the disease for a long time, switching off the television news and tearing up newspapers. But, now in their 20s, they have come to understand. ‘They have asked me to tell them my story,’ says Kaneko, ‘and one has even become a nurse and helps me with Yuji.’

Meanwhile, the quest for justice creeps forward. A new screening system for Minamata entitlements is to be formed starting in 2007. And on 25 April the Japanese Parliament’s Lower House passed a resolution calling for increased government help its first such action.

Nobuo Miyazawa, a Japanese journalist who has followed the case for years, offers a chilling verdict: ‘It cannot be understood save in the context of all the parties except the victims making excuses and avoiding what they needed to do. Minamata is a disease that was willfully inflicted.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.