Lecture series keeps Minamata in spotlight

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A Tokyo nonprofit organization is launching a major series of lectures on Minamata disease, following a first round in 2012, as part of continuing efforts to spread awareness of the tragedy.

Minamata disease was identified in 1956 as a form of mercury poisoning stemming from the discharge of polluted wastewater for more than three decades from a plant operated by Chisso Corp. into the Shiranui Sea off Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.

Hundreds of victims have died, but some estimates say more than 100,000 people may have been affected in some way.

Around 90 people have signed up so far for “Minamata Disease University” lectures, which are organized by Minamata Forum. Lasting 90 minutes each, the lectures explore an aspect of the scandal, offering contributions from academics, lawyers, journalists and doctors. One patient who survives with the condition will also make a presentation.

The lectures will take place at Rikkyo University in Tokyo through late September on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturdays.

“We can’t consider the Minamata disease issue a thing of the past, even though more than half a century has passed since its official recognition,” said Yuta Jitsukawa, secretary-general of the Minamata Forum.

He believes the full extent of the poisoning is not yet clear. While around 3,000 people have so far been certified as suffering from Minamata disease in Kumamoto and neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture, as well as in Niigata Prefecture in central Japan, more than 65,000 people have applied for the latest government compensation program for uncertified victims.

In Niigata, a similar condition was confirmed in 1965, caused by wastewater from a Showa Denko K.K. plant.

The three prefectures are now examining the applications for the compensation program after the central government stopped accepting them two years ago in a bid to draw a line under the episode.

On the other hand, lawsuits from individuals seeking official recognition as patients are still pending, suggesting some plaintiffs consider the issue far from resolved.

“There still are a lot of lessons to learn from the Minamata issue, particularly given that we face challenges on how to address the nuclear crisis in Fukushima,” Jitsukawa said.

It may help Fukushima Prefecture determine the compensation needs of people claiming to have suffered ill-health from the nuclear crisis.

In a lecture early this month, Sadao Togashi, a professor emeritus of law at Kumamoto University, spoke of recent recognition that not only coastal residents but also dwellers of upland districts near the Shiranui Sea became affected after eating contaminated fish purchased from vendors.

“The central and prefectural governments have never conducted comprehensive, broad-based health checks,” he said. “Meanwhile, medical research on Minamata disease has focused mainly on patients with serious symptoms, overlooking only mildly symptomatic patients.

“The enormous and complicated pollution issue” has been left unexplained, he said.

Other lecturers in the upcoming series include Toshiro Kojima, a former Environment Ministry senior official and now a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, who will examine the old government redress program for uncertified sufferers.

Award-winning novelist Natsuki Ikezawa will give a lecture in early September. He will talk about a 1960s literary work, “Kugai Jodo,” written by local writer Michiko Ishimure, and how it helped promote public awareness of the Minamata issue.

Jitsukawa said Minamata Forum plans to organize the Minamata Disease University every two or three years to cultivate people willing to pass on the lessons learned from Minamata.

The 30 lectures will run over the course of three months. Those who have signed up include teachers and public officials.