Memorial service marks Minamata tragedy’s 50th year

MINAMATA, Kumamoto Pref. — Japan marked on Monday the 50th anniversary of the recognition of Minamata disease, a malady caused by pollution that officials were slow to confront and whose sufferers include thousands still seeking recognition and compensation.

About 600 people, including victims from around the country, attended a memorial service in this town along Minamata Bay that became infamous for the mercury poisoning from a Chisso Corp. plant. Officials originally expected about 1,000 people, but occasional rain and strong winds may have kept some people away.

Environment Minister Yuriko Koike and Chisso Chairman Shunkichi Goto, whose plant, which dates to the early 1930s, was blamed for causing the tragedy by dumping organic mercury into the bay for decades, were among the attendees. Although May 1 is the day the disease was officially recognized, the outbreak was believed to have occurred years earlier.

One by one, officials stepped forward, offering prayers and flowers in front of a stone memorial where small clay figurines of shellfish lay at its base. “To all life forms lost in the Shiranui Sea. This tragedy will not be repeated. Rest in peace,” the inscription reads.

Minamata disease victims, some horribly disfigured and wheelchair-bound, also offered prayers and testimonials of a half century of discrimination and prejudice, both from the residents of Minamata itself and society at large.

“We were actually blamed for catching the disease. And when we originally sought assistance from local authorities, all we were told was that Chisso couldn’t possibly be responsible and that we were causing trouble,” said Tsuginori Hamamoto, chairman of the Minamata Disease Victims Association.

Hamamoto and the victims say many issues regarding Minamata disease victims remain unsolved. Uppermost in their minds are the thousands who suffer from symptoms but have not been recognized by the government as victims and are thus ineligible for compensation.