Citizens’ gathering focuses on Minamata, Fukushima similarities

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A Minamata disease sufferer suggested at a citizens’ gathering Sunday that the government has learned little from the mercury-poisoning disease and repeated bungles in tackling the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

“People found crows and doves unable to fly in the coastal areas of Minamata, while livestock such as pigs and chickens died after eating fish entrails in the early 1950s,” Takeshi Sugimoto said in a speech at the meeting in Tokyo. “And handicapped babies were born in the areas.”

They were apparently contaminated with mercury-laced water dumped by chemical maker Chisso Corp. into Minamata Bay, which led health authorities to officially recognize Minamata disease on May 1, 1956.

The gathering was sponsored by nonprofit organization Minamata Forum to mark the 56th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata disease, which causes various symptoms, such as sensory impairment in the limbs.

“We were aware that something odd was happening, but we could not ban fishing in the bay and could not stop the discharge of water (from the Chisso factory) in the absence of sufficient information,” Sugimoto, a 72-year-old fisherman from Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, told the audience of around 700 people.

“It has been said on various occasions that we need to learn lessons from Minamata disease, but the government has made mistakes in tackling the Fukushima nuclear disaster as it did” in dealing with the disease, he said.

It has been pointed out following the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi power complex that the government’s failure to disclose data on the predicted dispersion of radioactive materials, collected by its System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, caused unnecessary exposure to people living nearby.

Sugimoto, who was certified as a Minamata disease sufferer in 1981 at the age of 42, also said in the case of Minamata, it had been a taboo to publicly talk about the disease. “If someone in a family developed the disease, they hid the victim in an inner chamber.”

It was once believed that Minamata disease was contagious, stirring discrimination against its victims and their families as well as Minamata citizens as a whole.

Genichiro Takahashi, a popular writer who also spoke at the gathering, said referring to the suspension on Saturday of Japan’s last operating commercial nuclear reactor at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s Tomari complex, “It is a good opportunity for us to think about what kind of world we should and want to create.”

“We need to learn from (the disasters of) Minamata and Fukushima and hand the lessons down to the future,” said Takahashi, also a professor at Meiji Gakuin University.

The third speaker, Yuko Tanaka, professor of modern Japanese culture at Hosei University, said she went through the issues surrounding Minamata disease during her younger days, and that she felt that she lived at the expense of others.

“Now I think the Minamata issue was behind Japan’s postwar high economic growth,” she said.

In 1956, the year when Minamata disease was officially recognized, the then Economic Planning Agency proudly declared the end of the postwar reconstruction era at the dawn of the period of high economic growth.