Handing down Minamata lessons continues

Public seminars, information exhibits gain new poignancy as government pulls plug on redress

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Efforts to hand down lessons from the Minamata disease tragedy continue, even as the government tries to effectively draw the curtain on issues concerning the corporate-caused mercury poisonings.

Minamata Forum, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, will hold its 100th public seminar Aug. 28 in Tokyo. The series dates back to Jan. 8, 1998.

Over the years numerous lecturers with various backgrounds, including lawyers, journalists, lawmakers and patients of the disease, have talked about their involvement in Minamata-related issues.

The first person to take the podium was the late Jun Ui, known for his research into Minamata disease, which was caused by mercury-laced water dumped into the sea by a plant operated by chemical maker Chisso Corp. in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. The disease was first officially recognized by the state in 1956 but was believed to have surfaced years before then.

The 100th seminar will feature Rimiko Yoshinaga, 61, who lost her father and grandfather to the disease in the 1950s.

As a youngster she tried to avoid the reality of the disease, but gradually she acknowledged it and is now serving as a storyteller at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, where she shares with visitors her experiences as a relative of the victims.

“We have organized the seminars on weekday evenings so anybody can learn about Minamata disease after work,” said Yuta Jitsukawa, secretary general of Minamata Forum. “The past lecturers have presented various pictures of this society by referring to Minamata.”

While Minamata still draws public attention, the government for its part has pulled the plug on accepting applications from uncertified patients for financial aid.

The government compensation features a ¥2.1 million lump sum and monthly medical allowances.

Applications were no longer accepted as of July 31 — despite criticism that it would lead to the abandonment of potential patients.

Akihiko Yamamoto, 55, heads a group of Minamata disease victims living in the Tokyo area.

“There are many people who moved to Tokyo and Osaka from the disease-affected areas of Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures, and many of them have been left behind without knowing about the redress measures and the application deadline,” he said.

“I believe there still are many potential patients,” including those who may develop the disease in the future, said Yamamoto, who moved to Tokyo from Kagoshima and was diagnosed with the disease three years ago.

Concern over the possible abandonment of potential patients is now shared by people who have been exposed to radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, according to Satoshi Kamata, a freelance journalist.

Kamata, known for his extensive coverage of nuclear issues, has been a lecturer in the Minamata seminars and organized a mass antinuclear rally in Tokyo last month.

“People with fears of future health damage by radiation are afraid that they may also be abandoned some day,” he said.

“It is important to hand down memories of Minamata and Fukushima, as people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have passed on their experiences of the atomic bombings” so the tragedies won’t be forgotten or repeated.

Minamata Forum is also planning to hold 30 lectures at Rikkyo University in Tokyo in November and December by inviting scholars, doctors and victims as lecturers, with the aim of training people who can pass along the lessons of Minamata.

“We expect, for example, schoolteachers to attend the lectures at the ‘Minamata disease university’ so they will be able to teach Minamata issues in their own classes,” Jitsukawa said.

More than 50 years have passed since the disease got official recognition in 1956 at the dawn of Japan’s high economic growth, and “we hope we can present what ‘Minamata’ is through the upcoming lectures,” he said.

In addition to the seminars, the forum has organized the Minamata Exhibition at 22 venues nationwide since 1996 to display information panels and photographs on the history of disease, as well as portraits of hundreds of deceased victims.

The exhibits have attracted more than 130,000 people.

It has also hosted a four-day trip to Minamata almost every year for people who have never been to the city, so they can visit locations related to the disease and hear directly from victims.

A similar disease was confirmed in Niigata Prefecture in 1965, caused by wastewater from a Showa Denko K.K. plant.