Lectures put industrial tragedy in perspective

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A series of lectures hosted by a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization is showing from many perspectives how Japan has tackled issues arising from the Minamata mercury-poisoning disease.

A month of “Minamata Disease University” lectures offered by various instructors, including doctors and Minamata disease patients, through early December aims to enable people to hand down lessons of the disease, according to the nonprofit organization Minamata Forum, which is organizing the program.

Minamata disease was caused by mercury-laced water dumped by a plant operated by chemical maker Chisso Corp. in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture. Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been affected, mainly in Kumamoto and neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.

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

The lectures focus on the history of the disease, court rulings on the compensation issue and government redress measures as well as the progress of medical research.

They are being held at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

Around 80 people, including teachers and public officials, are attending them, with some saying they want to learn what Japan won and lost during its postwar high economic growth phase, during which the Minamata issue drew public attention.

Others are seeking ways to support people affected by the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 complex through learning about the history of Minamata, in which the environment as well as the local community were damaged in pursuit of economic benefits, as seen in Fukushima.

Those who complete the 30 90-minute lectures, worth four university credits, will be certified by Minamata Forum as being able to provide education on Minamata issues.

“More than 55 years have passed since Minamata disease was officially recognized in 1956, but it is still significant to learn about Minamata at a time when the whole picture, including the number of those affected, remains unexplained,” said Yuta Jitsukawa, secretary general of the NPO.

He also indicated the lessons to be learned from Minamata will be important in dealing with the Fukushima crisis going forward.

Questions will arise if people start suffering health problems, for instance on how to determine who should be liable and who should be eligible for compensation.

The classes are held in evenings and on weekends “so as many people as possible, including those with jobs, can study the issue intensively in a short period of time,” Jitsukawa said.

On a Saturday afternoon in November, the lecturer was Toshiro Kojima, a former senior official in the Environment Ministry.

Kojima, now a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, explained how government officials struggled to compile a framework for the redress program for Minamata victims amid a bevy of legal and political challenges.

Jitsukawa is giving some of the lectures to present an overall view of the Minamata issue, based on his 40 years spent supporting victims and drawing public attention to them.

“So far, the attendants and the lecturers are enthusiastically asking and answering questions, probably because many of the attendants are taking these courses based on strong interest stemming from their own social experiences,” Jitsukawa said.

Minamata Forum plans to continue hosting the lecture series biennially to keep the legacy of Minamata alive, he added.

As of October, only 2,973 people were officially certified as Minamata disease patients, but more than 65,000 people applied for the government’s latest redress program for unrecognized victims, indicating the scale of the problem.