Man who documented Minamata outbreak wins Domon Ken Award

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

In one picture, taken in August 1960, a 26-year-old woman stands alone on train station platform. She is leaving her son, born with Minamata disease, following divorce to start her life again.

On the next page, together with her new partner, she meets her son, who is in a wheelchair, in May 2010. She is now 77, the son 55.

The photo book, “The Minamata Disaster,” is the work of freelance photographer Shisei Kuwabara. He was recently awarded the prestigious Domon Ken Award, sponsored by the daily Mainichi Shimbun and named after legendary photographer Ken Domon (1909-1990), for the book and earlier exhibition of photos taken over a half century showing people affected by the mercury poisoning disease.

Kuwabara, 77, first visited Minamata in southern Kyushu in 1960, shortly after graduating from college in Tokyo. He was drawn there by a weekly magazine report on the coastal city, where people were developing such symptoms as generalized weakness and convulsions, and an alarming number of kids had been born with a cerebral palsylike affliction.

All suffered from Minamata disease caused by eating marine products from Minamata Bay, where chemical maker Chisso Corp. was discharging mercury-tainted wastewater.

“I felt rushed before arriving in Minamata, as I thought some photographers must have already been working there ahead of me,” Kuwabara said. “But I found nobody.”

With a strong ambition to be a professional photographer, Kuwabara found his ways into the hospital rooms and homes of Minamata patients and used his camera to capture the suffering and humble daily lives of the traumatized families.

Most of his subjects were in dire situations, which Kuwabara recorded with clinical precision. “I shot them with cold eyes, as no doctors withdraw their eyes from their desperately ill patients,” he says.

Packing up his work on Minamata in 1962 after holding a photo exhibition in Tokyo, Kuwabara headed to South Korea 10 years after the end of the Korean War, and then headed to wartime Vietnam.

“But I have continued visiting Minamata at intervals to meet with the patients and their families, while covering other topics,” he says. “Something newsworthy has continued to happen there throughout all this time.”

A battle has raged for decades, especially in the courts, over who should be officially recognized as a Minamata disease patient, under what criteria, and how much care and redress they should be given.

While 2,978 people had been officially certified as Minamata disease patients as of February, more than 65,000 applied for the government’s latest redress program for unrecognized sufferers, indicating that the big picture on Minamata disease hasn’t yet been put into focus.