Staff writer

OSAKA — In the summer of 1954, doctors at a hospital in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, admitted a patient who had a strange illness. The man had trouble walking and shook violently. After a month of convulsions, he died.

Medical experts were stumped, but some began to suspect that the man had been poisoned. Two years later, as more and more Minamata residents were admitted to area hospitals with similar symptoms, the medical science community realized they were facing a disaster. The cause was eventually traced to Chisso Corp., which was dumping untreated mercury and other chemicals into Minamata Bay.

Thus began one of the world’s longest, and saddest, environmental sagas. In the following years, children were born horribly deformed, while those who were older lost the use of their hands and eyes.

For nearly 20 years, Chisso denied any responsibility. The Kumamoto District Court awarded settlements in 1973 to a few victims and harshly criticized Chisso’s negligence, creating a precedent for future lawsuits.

Today, 43 years after Minamata doctors publicly identified Minamata disease, some 20,000 people have been diagnosed as having the disease or its symptoms. Official government recognition, however, has been granted to only about 3,000 people. More than 1,000 have died from the disease.

The plight of the Minamata victims received international attention after late photographer Eugene Smith’s gripping photographs appeared in Life magazine in 1973. Copies of those photos, as well as those taken by his widow, Aileen Smith, are part of a Minamata exhibition now taking place at Osaka’s Asian Trade Center.

In addition to the Smiths’ famous works, the exhibition features photographs taken during the 1960s by Japanese photographer Takeshi Shiota, as well as explanations of the disease, how it started, and Chisso’s subsequent attempts to avoid responsibility. There is also a booth showing the situation in the city today, and a sampling of food products from the Minamata Bay area, which the government declared safe in 1997.

“The exhibition aims to educate the general public on what Minamata disease is and what caused it,” Aileen Smith said. “Hopefully, people will come away with a better understanding of the dangers of uncontrolled industrial growth.”

As a young activist, Smith helped her husband photograph victims in the early 1970s and was once attacked by Chisso-hired thugs at a demonstration to protest the victims’ treatment.

Although many who suffered from Minamata disease but were not officially classified as victims accepted a government-proposed settlement in 1996, one last group of victims continues to fight through the courts for recognition. A part of the exhibition is given to the fight by this group, which consists of 53 Minamata victims who now live in the Kansai region.

Kansai is home to a large number of those with Minamata disease or its symptoms. According to unofficial estimates, nearly 3,000 people moved from Minamata to Kansai in the 1970s to find work. Of these, 373 have applied for official status as victims of the disease, but only 20 have been recognized as such.

The Kansai suit began in 1982, when a group of victims filed a lawsuit in the Osaka District Court seeking compensation from Chisso, the central government and the Kumamoto Prefectural Government.

“It was the first lawsuit filed by Minamata victims outside Kumamoto Prefecture,” said Akihaku Shono, a member of a Minamata victims’ support group.

The case is now being heard in the Osaka High Court. The victims are seeking 30 million yen each, and a final verdict is not expected until late next year or early 2001.

The exhibition at the Asian Trade Center ends Sept. 19.

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