MINAMATA: Pollution and the Struggle For Democracy in Postwar Japan, by Timothy S. George. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, 385 pp., $45 (cloth)

The story of mercury poisoning suffered by residents near the port of Minamata in Kyushu is a well-known tale of knavery on a grand scale. A telling example of the dark side of Japan’s economic “miracle” and the price that people were made to pay in support of industrialization, the haunting pictures of the victims remain seared in our collective conscience.

Unfortunately, a recent symposium held in Minamata on mercury as a global pollutant suggests that the lessons of this environmental tragedy have not been learned and that people around the globe are still subject to the same nexus of forces that doomed the town a half century ago.

Timothy George has written an excellent and powerful book on this important story, elucidating how the struggle for justice by ordinary citizens against the powers that be makes democracy work.

He writes: “Minamata is a story not just of the environmental and human costs of rapid ‘modernization,’ but also of a callous and murderous corporation hiding its guilt; of the collusion and confusion at all levels of government and society, including the scientific community and the media, that allowed this tragedy to happen and then to be covered up; of powerful pressures against speaking out and taking action; of stigmatization and ostracism in the local society of a company town; of popular politicization and grassroots movements; of the social constraints on these movements and on individuals; and of the persistence and adaptation of ‘traditional’ uses of language and religion and concepts of the moral economy.”

It is a tribute to George’s skill as a scholar and storyteller that he covers all these facets of the Minamata tragedy with extraordinary sensitivity. Based on both primary and secondary sources, the narrative benefits considerably from the author’s fieldwork in the area and from engaging portraits of various individuals involved in the Minamata saga.

The author focuses on three phases of response to the outbreak of Minamata disease — from 1956 to the present. His analysis sheds light on how various actors responded during these phases and negotiated increasingly better settlements with Chisso Corp., the company responsible for dumping organic mercury into Minamata Bay.

He locates the beginning of the second phase in 1959, when dramatic changes all over Japan facilitated new patterns of organization and activism that led to a settlement in 1973 involving monetary compensation and recognition of Chisso’s legal responsibility.

In the mid-1990s, a third-phase settlement extended compensation to many uncertified victims, but the question of the government’s legal responsibility and the lingering stigma suffered by the victims remain unresolved problems.

For George, it is important to recognize that Minamata is not just a gruesome story of an environmental catastrophe. He argues convincingly that Minamata is a microcosm of postwar Japan and thus is representative of the “contending and evolving relationships among society, corporations and the state; and most important, of an ongoing redefinition of citizenship and democracy in postwar Japan.”

He succeeds in explaining through this gripping case study how democracy works at the local and national level in Japan in an effort to understand “how democratic it is, how its democracy is constrained, and how its democracy is changing.”

Chisso continued to dump mercury into the bay even after it knew that fish and fish-eaters, including the infamous cats suddenly struck by fits of “dancing,” were being poisoned.

The company built a waste-treatment facility that did nothing to reduce mercury levels. At a media event staged to open the facility, a top executive appeared to drink water that had been treated there. George informs us that, in fact, the official drank uncontaminated water from another source because he knew that “treated” wastewater was still unsafe.

In one of the all-time most shameless acts of corporate greed, Chisso, upon discovering that the concentration of mercury in the sludge at the bottom of the bay was twice that for a commercially viable mine, set up a subsidiary to reclaim the mercury while resisting pressures for compensation and a general clean-up of affected areas.

The author is withering in his indictment of those who allowed the tragedy to happen, then covered it up and stymied efforts by victims seeking redress.

He writes: “Too many scientists seem to have been in the service of money and power. Too many in the media saw it as their duty to be ‘neutral’ by uncritically reporting every theory, rather than investigating who sponsored them and whether they were backed by solid evidence. Too many government officials seem to have been willing to sacrifice poor fisherfolk on the altar of high growth.”

Government officials in Tokyo were willing to look the other way because they did not want the suffering of small numbers of citizens in a remote village to endanger their grand plans for growth and industrialization.

Chisso officials had their own logic; access to government funds for expansion depended on current production volumes, so that it made sense to actually increase output (and the dumping of mercury) even after the nature of the problem was known.

Local officials, with some key exceptions, were complicit because Chisso was the source of 45 percent of the town’s tax revenues and virtually every family had a relative employed in the company’s factories.

In telling this tale of state negligence, corporate greed, media bumbling and class discrimination, George holds up a mirror to Japanese society. It is not a flattering picture when viewed in segments.

The larger picture over the decades, however, is more heartening in that people made choices that made a difference, asserted their rights as citizens and showed that democracy, albeit imperfectly, does work if people take on the responsibilities that it imposes.

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