Stage

Tokyo play explores Minamata issue on the 60th anniversary of the official recognition of the mercury-poisoning disease

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

A play featuring a doctor involved in the identification of Minamata disease will open in a Tokyo theater on Friday, marking the 60th anniversary of the official recognition of the mercury-poisoning disease.

The main character in “To a Quiet Ocean — Minamata” is modeled on Hajime Hosokawa, a former director at a hospital operated by Chisso Corp. in the coastal city of Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Hosokawa reported finding four patients with unexplained neurological disorders on May 1, 1956 — considered later to be the date when Minamata disease was first confirmed.

In pursuit of the disease’s cause, the doctor gave wastewater from the Chisso factory to a cat, which eventually developed the disease, confirming that the chemical maker had contaminated the sea and was causing the mercury-poisoning. Despite the discovery, he was urged by his employers to remain silent.

After retiring from the hospital in Chisso, Hosokawa returned to his hometown in Ehime Prefecture to work as a physician.

In 1970, he revealed the details of his research on Minamata disease during his testimony in a damages lawsuit against Chisso, filed by the victims and their families. The testimony contributed to the ruling in favor of the plaintiffs and came just three months before the doctor’s death from lung cancer.

Tsuyoshi Futakuchi, a playwright, had his interest in the life of Hosokawa sparked when he studied the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns.

“I became aware that the nuclear accident and the Minamata issue were brought about under similar circumstances,” Futakuchi said. “Both the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the Chisso factory benefitted local economies, but they released radiation and mercury, respectively, and ended up damaging those same communities.”

Under such circumstances, Hosokawa must have been caught in a dilemma between his company and his patients, said Futakuchi, who decided to focus on the doctor in his play.

“Hosokawa must have returned to his hometown with a feeling of resignation, but he finally told the truth to the court from his sickbed,” Futakuchi said. “I wanted to depict his change of heart.”

During his research for the play, Futakuchi visited Minamata for the first time and talked with local people.

“A man, who happened to sit next to me in a bar, told me while avoiding attention that there still remains friction between the victims and other Minamata citizens,” he said. “I realized that the Minamata issue remains alive and has deep roots.”

Yuta Jitsukawa, head of Minamata Forum, said, “This drama follows the historical facts and features Hosokawa as a beleaguered person, rather than a hero.”

The Tokyo-based nonprofit organization cooperated in the creation of the performance.

“It is quite significant that the play is performed on the 60th anniversary of the recognition of Minamata disease,” Jitsukawa said.

Popular actor Toshiyuki Nagashima represents a doctor modeled on Hosokawa and Tomoko Saito portrays his wife.

Minamata disease paralyzes the human central nervous system and causes birth defects. The government recognized it as a pollution-caused disease in September 1968.

So far, only around 3,000 among over 33,700 applicants have been officially recognized as Minamata disease patients in Kumamoto and neighboring Kagoshima prefectures as well as Niigata Prefecture, where a similar disease was confirmed in 1965, caused by wastewater from a Showa Denko K.K. plant.

The performance goes through Oct. 20 at Kinokuniya Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. For further information, call Tom Project at 03-5371-1153.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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