For a group of elementary school students in Oita Prefecture, a recent online encounter with people who have of Minamata disease, a mercury poisoning illness which damages the central nervous system, served as a powerful lesson about life and human rights.
The online meeting took place between 25 fifth graders at an elementary school in Oita and four people with Minamata disease in neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture. During the session, the students learned about the disease and related stigma from stories shared by people who contracted the disease through their mothers before they were born.
The children who took part in the event avidly listened to the four guest speakers, all in their late 50s. They shared their experiences in choppy phrases due to their speech impediments — one of the symptoms of the neurological disease.
“I started attending school when one opened within the hospital premises when I was 12 years old and I still cherish those memories,” said one of the four guests. Another said that “(despite my physical disability) I took on many things in life and never lost hope to live.”
The children’s school is located near the Nogami River, which flows into the Chikugo River and ultimately to the Ariake Sea, which is connected to the Yatsushiro Sea, the outer part of Minamata Bay where the pollution occurred.
The online meeting was planned as an opportunity for students to learn firsthand about the disease and the discrimination that people with it had to endure.
The meeting was supposed to take place in the city of Minamata but the plan changed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the session was held online on Sept. 1.
The presentation was followed by a question and answer session, which enabled the students to deepen their understanding of the disease they had learned about beforehand.
Asked about how he felt when faced with discrimination, one of the men who had the disease revealed he had felt frustrated. He added: “But I also wondered if I was unwillingly discriminating against other people.”
When another student asked the guests what they expected from the students, the man said he hoped that some of the young participants would someday become doctors studying the mercury-poisoning disease.
A 10-year-old student who participated in the 2-hour event said he learned that you shouldn’t discriminate against others.
“I could tell that the speakers are going the extra mile to tell us about their ordeal,” he said.
This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published on Sept. 13.