Across Japan and throughout much of the world, the name Minamata is synonymous with corporate environmental pollution and mercury poisoning. This did not happen, though, simply because truth naturally comes to light. Rather, it has taken decades of effort by a few dedicated individuals to reveal the physical and emotional suffering of Minamata victims, from the first reported symptoms of the disease in the mid-1950s to the lawsuits that have dragged on into recent years.
For many outside Japan, the first glimpse of Minamata’s unique horror came through the lens of one dedicated individual, W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978), a well-known American photographer who on his third trip to Japan in 1971 ended up staying in Minamata village for three years.
Some of Smith’s images from this visit appeared in a Life Magazine photo essay entitled “Death-Flow from a Pipe.” Of these stark, black-and-white photos, one in particular captured the world’s attention: a shot taken in December 1972 of mercury victim Tomoko Uemura. Uemura, who was poisoned by mercury in the uterus and born deaf, blind and unable to use her legs, is seen being bathed by her mother, who sits in the bath cradling her child’s rail-thin and contorted body.
In Japan, the disease was further revealed by another dedicated observer — Masazumi Harada, the author of “Minamata Disease.” Harada, a medical doctor and university professor first published “Minamata Disease” in Japanese in 1971, and the book is a personal account of his life’s work, beginning as a graduate student puzzling over the symptoms of mercury poisoning and, later, confronting the bureaucratic stonewalling of government and corporate officials.
For centuries, Minamata was a quiet fishing village on the island of Kyushu. The town, in Kumamoto Prefecture, is at the mouth of the Minamata River as it empties into the Shiranui Sea. Just to the southwest is tranquil Minamata Bay, long a haven for local subsistence fishers. In 1908, Nihon Carbide Co. established a factory in the town, and in 1909 it merged with Sogi Electric, changing its name to Nihon Chisso Hiryo, or Japan Nitrogenous Fertilizer. Chisso began producing nitrogen fertilizer and gradually developed into a full-scale chemical company.
Within a decade, the Minamata factory was producing a wide array of chemical products and an equally wide array of wastes that were being dumped into Minamata Bay. In fact, as early as 1925, fishing cooperatives in the area began demanding compensation from Chisso for polluting the bay. By the onset of World War II, the Minamata factory was one of Japan’s largest chemical manufacturing facilities, a stature it maintained after the war.
With production and toxic wastes increasing, tragedy was inevitable. But local fishers and their families were not the first to be poisoned.
In “Minamata Disease,” Harada reports that around 1950, “Fish floated to the surface and could be taken by hand. . . . In 1953-54, not only fish but also land animals, such as cats and pigs went mad and died.” Noticing these paroxysms before death, locals named the strange phenomenon the “dancing-cat disease.”
Sachie Tsushima and Timothy S. George’s translation of “Minamata Disease,” released this past March, is the first English translation of Harada’s work and includes a brief addendum that updates the reader on what has happened since 1972. Classifying Harada’s book, though, is tricky. It is by turns a scientific article, a historical account, a personal memoir, and a morality play, a cautionary tale of what can happen when a corporation has too much social and political power in a society where dissent and self-assertion are frowned upon.
The book is a well-documented and revealing account of the disease: from its discovery, through the decades of suffering faced by its victims and their families, to the failure of Chisso Corp., the prefecture and national governments to act swiftly in identifying the disease, and in caring for and compensating the victims.
It provides a detailed and compassionate account of the confusion that accompanied the first outbreak of mercury poisoning, and how researchers quickly identified the cause of the disease, only to be condemned by government and business interests.
Harada tells of the heartbreaking search for hidden victims, those afraid to come forward or unaware of their disease. He also investigates a later mercury-poisoning outbreak in Niigata and the difficulty of getting the government to certify victims, a process necessary to gain treatment. Particularly distressing is the realization of a deeply rooted fear of ostracism within Japanese society that kept many victims from coming forward for treatment, some remaining in denial of their symptoms until death.
In the end, Harada notes, probably more than 200,000 people in and around Minamata Bay were contaminated by mercury, but even decades later, justice continued to elude numerous mercury-poisoning victims, many of whom died uncompensated for their suffering. Indeed, 40 years later Minamata-related lawsuits were still working their way through the Japanese legal system.
Not surprisingly, Chisso sought to sidestep responsibility from the outset. Harada writes that on Jan. 25, 1957, a group of medical specialists met to discuss the mysterious disease that was attacking Minamata and neighboring villages: “The meeting concluded: ‘Minamata disease is caused by a metal, and Chisso’s effluents have something to do with it.’ How did Chisso respond to this? Their reply to the fishing cooperative . . . gives some idea. Namely, ‘There has been no change in the sea water of Minamata Bay since 1948. If by chance a toxic substance should be found in the sea water, the matter will be dealt with properly.’ “
Harada’s book makes it clear that to this day the matter has never been handled in a forthright and responsible manner.
Today, the Chisso Corp. Web site does not mention this infamous period of its history, except to note that the company has a factory in Minamata. The company’s “Historical Overview” begins, “Chisso’s history mirrors the development of the Japanese chemical industry.”
In fact, it is a reflection of the chemical industry worldwide. Chisso’s Minamata mirrors the all-too-common failures of corporations and governments across the globe, from Bhopal to Chernobyl to the Exxon Valdez.
“Minamata Disease” was clearly a labor of love for Harada, which makes it much easier to excuse the book’s flaws, including gaps in the narrative and gratuitous commentary by the author that can be distracting. It is informative and very readable, shocking and touching by turns, and it is a valuable addition to the burgeoning, and essential, literary tradition for bearing witness to the corporate and government environmental malfeasance.