Hoisting banners with the single Chinese character for “damnation,” victims of the mercury poisoning outbreak known as Minamata disease rallied in Tokyo in 1971 to draw national attention to their plight.
As a young scientist at the then National Institute of Health, a health ministry affiliate that researches infectious diseases, Hideo Arai wished he could offer some help to the victims of one of the most infamous pollution cases in Japan’s postwar history.
But unlike one colleague who resigned to study more about industrial pollutants, Arai stayed with his job due to concerns for his career.
“It has long been a trauma for me that I chose my career over my mission as a scientist, which is to save as many lives as possible,” said the 60-year-old Arai, one of the leading bacilli researchers at the institute, which was renamed the National Institute of Infectious Disease in 1997.
The institute conducts research and experiments on numerous pathogens, including such dangerous viruses and bacilli as HIV, salmonella, anthrax and bubonic plague.
Nearly 20 years after the Minamata demonstration, Arai’s “conscience as a scientist” faced another test when the institute decided to relocate to a state-owned plot in the densely populated residential district of Toyama in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.
The decision was met with extensive protests by local residents concerned that the facility would emit harmful substances from its vents or could cause an enormous catastrophe by accident.
“I thought that residents’ worries were totally reasonable, because we deal with many pathogens whose dangers are not fully understood,” Arai said.
When construction of the new facility commenced in 1988, local residents filed a suit with the Tokyo District Court, seeking a court order to suspend operations.
Riot police were mobilized to forcibly remove local residents who staged a sit-in when construction began. Arai apologized to the residents the next morning, saying he was very ashamed that his colleagues did not lend an ear to them.
The facility has been in operation since 1992, with officials stressing that it is “absolutely safe.” But Arai maintains that even the most cutting-edge filters cannot fully remove such pathogens and chemicals.
Last year, the court ruled that the facility can continue to operate, saying the residents’ claim was groundless. The residents have since appealed.
Throughout the trial, Arai has supported the local residents and testified in favor of the plaintiffs.
“I was not the only person who opposed the relocation when it was announced, but everyone else gradually became quiet, possibly out of concerns for their careers,” he said.
“They know that what they do can harm the residents, but they deceive themselves that it is a small cost that can contribute to the larger good” that their research can produce, Arai said. “But everyone’s life is equally precious, and if you can’t save your neighbors, how can you save the world?”
Being such a vocal insider, however, has taken a heavy toll. “It is quite usual for me to talk to no one for a whole day at work,” he said.
But what really devastates Arai is that he can no longer conduct large-scale research because none of his colleagues will work with him and he now receives only minimal assistance from the institute.
“It kills me to do nothing in my laboratory, but I don’t regret it because this is a result of what I believe.”
But when he received a written reprimand and pay cut in January 2001 for “defaming the institute and his colleagues” through lying and distorting facts, Arai did not stay quiet.
Within the same month, he filed a civil suit with the Tokyo District Court, demanding compensation and a withdrawal of the institute’s claim that he lied. The trial is ongoing.
“I cannot lose, because my defeat will discourage insiders with good hearts and knowledge from following their conscience.”
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