National / Social Issues

Sixty years on, justice eludes Minamata residents poisoned with mercury

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

In the early 1970s, when the country was gripped by student unrest, it was the sight of a sit-in by Minamata disease sufferers outside the headquarters of Chisso Corp. in central Tokyo that gave high schooler Yuta Jitsukawa his cause.

The chemicals company had dumped untreated factory waste into the Shiranui Sea in Minamata Bay, causing mercury poisoning among local residents and triggering what became known as Minamata disease. The protesters were demanding compensation for the victims.

The fact that residents had traveled from far-off Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, to the capital “made me think about what I could do for them, rather than discussing revolution or Marxism,” Jitsukawa said.

He joined a street fundraising campaign for the victims and eventually became a freelance editor with a desire to “relay their words to the public.”

Sixty years after Minamata disease was officially recognized — the anniversary is this year — Jitsukawa is still pushing to raise awareness.

The disease first came to light on May 1, 1956, when a public health center in Minamata received a report about four people with unexplained neurological disorders.

Jitsukawa notes that many patients involved in campaigning early on have now died.

“We now need to relay the Minamata story to future generations,” he said.

He heads the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Minamata Forum, which aims to educate people about the disease and those whose lives it ended, and ensure that the lessons are not forgotten.

To mark the 60th anniversary, the forum plans to give a series of talks in Tokyo in early May by researchers, journalists and Minamata disease sufferers.

It will also convene the 25th Minamata Exhibition in the city of Kumamoto in October. The touring exhibition opened in Tokyo in 1996, displaying samples of contaminated sludge from Minamata Bay, the damaged brains of late victims and hundreds of portraits of people affected. It has traveled all over Japan, attracting nearly 140,000 viewers in total.

Minamata disease has kept people like Jitsukawa continually committed, even if they live far away from the small coastal city.

Tatsuaki Okamoto is a similarly committed activist.

After graduating from the prestigious law faculty of the University of Tokyo, Okamoto joined Chisso in 1957 on an executive track, but he eventually assumed the leadership of a labor union in Minamata that had strained ties with management.

Declaring in a 1968 union paper that it would be “shameful as human beings and as workers to do nothing for the victims and to not tackle the Minamata issue,” Okamoto and other union members began helping the victims.

“We thought we needed to become independent from the company, and we, as individuals, decided to support them,” he said.

Okamoto researched the disease and recently issued the six-volume, 3,700-page “People’s History of Minamata Disease,” which is published by Tokyo-based Nippon Hyoron Sha Co.

He thought it was time to sum up what was known about the incident, and that “common people should be featured as the victims.”

He said he aimed to record how the scandal developed “through their real voices,” and therefore chose to quote them in the local dialect.

Okamoto retired from Chisso in 1990 and now lives in Tokyo, but says he has never forgotten that he is “an accomplice in the murder” of the victims.

Fellow activist Yoshiko Shiotani was the governor of Kumamoto when, in 2004, the Supreme Court held the central and Kumamoto prefectural governments responsible for the spread of the condition.

Following the ruling, Shiotani, a former welfare worker, proposed a ¥900 million program of health checks on 470,000 people living around the Shiranui Sea. This, she hoped, would lead to the development of a remedy.

“I thought it was necessary first of all to get the whole picture of Minamata disease through objective data,” said Shiotani, the nation’s second-ever female governor.

Her proposal was never realized, partly due to reluctance from the central government.

Only around 3,000 people have been accepted as sufferers of the disease, even though 33,540 sought recognition. Critics accuse the government of setting overly tight criteria.

Shiotani left office in 2008 and now serves as administrative director of the Japan College of Social Work in Tokyo, her alma mater, where she gives a talk on Minamata disease every year to new students as well as local residents.

“I tell them Minamata disease spread when Japanese society was focused on the economy rather than the environment in pursuit of postwar reconstruction,” she said. “And I believe an examination of our experiences of Minamata will be beneficial for developing countries” so that the tragedy is never repeated.

One of her biggest concerns is for the offspring of sufferers, who were contaminated with mercury in the womb and are now around 60 years old.

“Given that (they) and their parents are getting older, it has become quite difficult to take care of them at home, and it shows the Minamata problem is so serious that it cannot be redressed only by financial compensation,” Shiotani said.

She added: “It is shameful that the Minamata issue has not been solved in 60 years.”

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