Symposium highlights unresolved issues of Minamata disease sufferers

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

The problems facing people suffering from fetal Minamata disease remain unresolved more than 50 years after the mercury-poisoning disorder was officially detected in 1956, a researcher of the disease said Sunday.

“While sensory impairment is one of the criteria for official recognition as a Minamata disease patient, it is difficult for sufferers who have entered their 50s to prove the symptom, although they exhibit higher brain dysfunction apparently caused by mercury,” said Masazumi Harada, professor at Kumamoto Gakuen University.

“One of the biggest challenges for the future is how to deal with such fetal sufferers,” Harada, a neuropsychiatrist who heads the university’s Open Research Center for Minamata Studies, told a Tokyo symposium on the Minamata issue.

For the past half-century, Harada has been involved as a physician in tackling the disease, caused by contamination of Minamata Bay by mercury-laced wastewater from the synthetic resin factory of Chisso Corp. in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.

The fetal disease patients were contaminated with mercury in the womb and after birth in the food chain starting with fish in Minamata Bay, he said. “Thus it should be called ‘Minamata disease,’ not simply ‘organic mercury poisoning.”‘

The symposium was held on the last day of an exhibition at Hosei University of documents compiled by a Chisso labor union aimed at showing how workers have faced the Minamata issue as employees of the offending enterprise.

Another panelist, Yoshihiro Yamashita, a former leader of the union, told the around 300 attendants, “I joined Chisso in 1956 as I believed it was a company with future potential, and I initially closed my eyes to the Minamata issue as I focused more on wage hikes.”

“But our union members eventually became aware that the harsh labor control of the company was inextricably linked to its ill-treatment of Minamata disease sufferers,” Yamashita said.

Such awareness led the union to declare that it would be a “shame,” as human beings and workers, to do nothing for the victims and to not address the Minamata issue.

“Our union made utmost efforts to make our employer accept the blame for the Minamata issue and determined to support the victims,” Yamashita said.

Harada, for his part, said, “The Minamata issue broke out in the process of Japan’s postwar reconstruction, which bolstered the livelihood of each of us.”

“In that sense, I believe that not only Chisso, the state and local governments but all of us need to accept responsibility for Minamata disease,” he said. “The Minamata issue is not over yet.”