Exhibit recalls Meiji environmental disaster and activist Diet member

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Paintings on display in a Saitama gallery are renewing memories of a mineral poisoning case in the Meiji Era and the politician who tackled Japan’s first known major environmental disaster.

The paintings by Iri and Toshi Maruki, the husband and wife team known for their works depicting the horrors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are being displayed at the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, located in Higashimatsuyama.

The exhibition is being held to mark the Sept. 4 centennial of the death of Diet member Shozo Tanaka at the age of 71.

A member of the Lower House, Tanaka tried to support people whose livelihoods were threatened or who were driven from their homes by poisonous minerals from the Ashio Copper Mine in his native Tochigi Prefecture.

The minerals got into nearby rivers and damaged the ecosystem, including farmland, over a wide area of the Kanto Plain.

The series features six folding screen-type paintings 180 cm high and 720 cm wide. Three are currently on show at the gallery.

The Marukis painted the pictures based on intensive research into the Ashio pollution case, including interviews with local people who are working to keep alive the memories and lessons from the incident and preserve Tanaka’s legacy.

One work depicts Tanaka making a direct appeal about the case to Emperor Meiji in 1901. His attempt ended in failure, but it contributed to stirring public awareness of the problem.

Another scene depicts thousands of affected peasants, including many women, marching to Tokyo to make the central government aware of their miserable situation and seek closure of the copper mine.

Despite the efforts of Tanaka and the peasants, the government failed to take action, believing it needed copper to boost national wealth and military power.

The paintings on the Ashio case, composed from 1987 to 1992, are among the last works by the Marukis, who also depicted the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Nanjing Massacre and the Minamata mercury poisoning disease, said Yukinori Okamura, the gallery’s curator.

“They focused on unknown people who were sacrificed by something powerful, and they must have hoped to depict the Ashio issue last of all as the first case of social distortion in the process of modernization.”

Iri Maruki died in October 1995 at age 94, while Toshi Maruki passed away in January 2000 when she was 87. They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Okamura noted the coincidence of the centennial of Tanaka’s death coming as Japan finds itself dealing with the Fukushima nuclear crisis, with government policy resulting in the threat of radiation and displacement as well as environmental contamination.

“We are in the same situation seen in Shozo Tanaka’s era,” he said.