Hundreds of Minamata disease patients and their supporters marched through central Tokyo on Saturday, two days ahead of the 50th anniversary of its official recognition.
Carrying deep-blue sashes symbolizing the Shiranui Sea, the area where the disease broke out, and the salt of the ocean, the participants visited several Minamata disease-related points.
These included the Environment Ministry and the site of the former headquarters of Chisso Corp., the chemical manufacturer which caused the disease by dumping mercury-laced waste water from a synthetic resin factory into rivers in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.
Thousands of people were sickened because they ate fish caught from the bay.
“I walked while thinking about those who passed away due to the disease,” said Eiko Sugimoto, 67, who was recognized as a patient in 1974.
“I have been trying to keep my health condition good for the past several months in order to take part in this rally,” she said, and joined her hands in prayer for the deceased victims in front of the former Chisso headquarters, the last point of the rally.
Takae Kobayashi, a 19-year-old student at Saitama University, volunteered to support the rally because “I have continued thinking about Minamata since visiting there last September as part of a social studies course at the college.”
Minamata disease was officially recognized on May 1, 1956, when a local public health center received a report that four patients were suffering from an unexplained encephalopathy, termed merely “a strange disease.”
As of the end of March, 2,955 people in Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Niigata prefectures had been officially recognized as patients, of whom 2,009 have already died, according to the Environment Ministry.
However, there are many others who are still applying for recognition to receive medical support.
More than 3,800 people have filed applications with local authorities since the Supreme Court held the central government and Kumamoto Prefecture responsible in October 2004 for the spread of the disease and set less rigid standards for recognizing victims than were established in 1977.
Some of the unrecognized patients filed a damages suit last October against the central government, Kumamoto Prefecture and Chisso, indicating the existence of latent patients, although no new patients have been recognized officially since December 2000.
Prior to the 50th anniversary, both houses of the Diet adopted resolutions vowing not to allow such pollution to occur again while urging the government to provide full support the victims of the disease and their families.
On Monday, a memorial service will be held in Minamata, with patients, bereaved families and Environment Minister Yuriko Koike attending.