Minamata victim seeks meeting with Obama

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — A 53-year-old Minamata disease victim who appeared in a magazine article that deeply moved a young Barack Obama has written to the U.S. president, requesting a meeting when he visits Tokyo on Friday.

In his book, “Dreams From My Father,” which was published before he became president, Obama describes how as a young boy he saw a photo of a Minamata victim with her mother in a bath in the June 1972 edition of Life magazine.

“The photograph of a Japanese woman cradling a young, naked girl in a shallow tub: that was sad; the girl was sick, her legs twisted, her head fallen back against the mother’s breast, the mother’s face tight with grief,” Obama wrote.

After becoming a senator, Obama played a leading role in getting a law passed that banned the export of mercury. As president, Obama has pushed for an international treaty on mercury, the cause of Minamata disease.

The young girl who moved Obama was named Tomoko. She died in 1977 at age 21. But Shinobu Sakamato, another victim who was also included in Life’s Minamata feature by American photographer W. Eugene Smith and his wife, Aileen, wrote to Obama last week.

“I have learned about your serious concern for Minamata and mercury, and if it is possible, I would like to meet you in Tokyo,” Sakamoto said.

Aileen Smith, now based in Kyoto, also wrote to Obama, saying Sakamoto has long been an active campaigner for other Minamata victims.

“Sakamoto attended the very first U.N. conference on the environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. In spite of her handicap, she has since worked diligently for justice for her fellow sufferers and their families. She has moved countless people, including scholars who have become active in research that established the foundation for the elimination of this deadly substance,” Smith said.