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Late physician dedicated life to helping sufferers of disease linked to mercury-laced water

Minamata exhibition honors doctor

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Masazumi Harada was not only a doctor but also a humble individual, who offered sacrificial support to sufferers of Minamata mercury-poisoning disease and learned from them.

An exhibition at Kumamoto Gakuen University’s Open Research Center for Minamata Studies in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, shows his half-century struggle with the disease, caused by mercury-laced water dumped by a plant operated by chemical maker Chisso Corp. into the ocean.

Harada promoted the intensive study of Minamata disease and was involved in the victims’ legal struggles against Chisso as well as the central and local governments, and was an expert witness on their behalf. He also contributed to finding potential patients through his fieldwork.

He succumbed to acute myelocytic leukemia last June at the age of 77.

The exhibits include his medical gear, including his stethoscope and a white coat, and research notes on those living along the Shiranui Sea, an inland sea surrounded by Minamata and other cities as well as several islands, where people are believed to have regularly eaten seafood contaminated by mercury from the Chisso plant in Minamata.

It is believed tens of thousands in the coastal areas, as well as inland, were affected, but because of the government’s strict recognition criteria, only around 3,000 people have officially been recognized so far as patients, including those in Niigata Prefecture, where it was found years after the Minamata outbreak that a Showa Denko chemical plant was dumping methyl mercury into the Agano River.

After graduating from the medical school at Kumamoto University and doing his internship at a Tokyo hospital, Harada saw Minamata disease patients for the first time in 1961.

Visiting several of the patients at home, he was surprised to see how desperately poor they were. He later said, “I was stunned by the differential between life in Tokyo and that in Minamata,” according to the exhibition.

He also said he asked himself what doctors can or should do on behalf of those who have an incurable diseases like Minamata.

After meeting the mother of a child affected with Minamata disease through eating contaminated fish, Harada found the child’s younger brother also suffered from it as he was exposed to mercury while in the womb. Harada was the first to diagnose the younger brother.

The encounter with the mother and her children prompted him to repeatedly visit Minamata, where further study revealed the existence of “congenital sufferers” who had been passed over for compensation.

While conducting research on mercury-poisoning victims in Brazil, Canada, China and other areas of the world, he also contacted those who suffered carbon monoxide intoxication following mine accidents in the 1960s, according to the exhibition.

He apparently saw common ground between the Minamata disease issue and the mine accidents, considering those affected to be victims of Japan’s modernization and economic growth.

After becoming a professor at Kumamoto Gakuen University in 1999, Harada supervised a “Minamata studies” course, in which not only researchers, lawyers and journalists but also patients themselves have given lectures for interdisciplinary studies.

“We have organized the exhibition so visitors can be visually aware of how Mr. Harada had been living as a doctor and also as an individual,” said Masanori Hanada, director and professor at the Open Research Center. “I particularly expect visitors to focus on his research notes, which were made public for the first time and show how the Minamata disease sufferers have led their lives.”

The free exhibition is open from Tuesday to Friday and runs through June 11, the first anniversary of Harada’s death.