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It’s been more than six decades since the discovery of Minamata disease, a neurological disorder that resulted from the toxic dumping of methylmercury into Kumamoto Prefecture’s Minamata Bay and Shiranui Sea by chemical company Chisso Corp.

Thousands of locals who consumed contaminated seafood became ill with symptoms that include ataxia, numbness, sensory loss and muscle weakness. In extreme cases, it led to insanity, coma and death.

The incident is one of the most horrific examples of industrial pollution the world has seen, and its effects are still being felt today. A lack of government and corporate responsibility remains an issue as victims continue to fight for their right for a fair financial settlement.

A woman lifts her husband from a futon. Her husband is suffering from ataxia, one of the symptoms typically associated with Minamata disease. | W. EUGENE SMITH
A woman lifts her husband from a futon. Her husband is suffering from ataxia, one of the symptoms typically associated with Minamata disease. | W. EUGENE SMITH

Although more than 20,000 have attempted to be recognized as victims, fewer than 3,000 have officially been certified, each receiving between ¥16 million and ¥18 million.

Relief measures for non-recognized sufferers were carried out in 1995 and 2009, with individuals paid ¥2.6 million and ¥2.1 million, respectively, in exchange for dropping their lawsuits.

Despite this, many are still being denied financial packages due to the stringent and haphazard compensation criteria — the geographic and temporal scope of the disease has never been properly determined and there continues to be a lack of transparency in the decision-making process.

In March, eight plaintiffs had their claims rejected by the Fukuoka High Court despite three of them being recognized as victims by the Kumamoto District Court.

“People are always saying Minamata’s over but it isn’t because citizens continue to suffer and lawsuits are ongoing,” says Green Action Japan founder Aileen Mioko Smith, who worked as a photojournalist in the region. “The plaintiffs are people in their early 60s but what we’re actually talking about is kids who haven’t been recognized more than half a century after their bodies were contaminated.”

Smith says there’s a refusal to acknowledge the suffering of individuals who’ve been living with this since they were toddlers.

“They were brainwashed into thinking the symptoms they experienced had nothing to do with mercury poisoning as they thought it only affected their parents and grandparents,” Smith says. “Eventually came the realization that they were poisoned, too, yet the government just wants to use its power to cut them off until they all die.”

A prominent figure in the Minamata movement in the early 1970s, Aileen and her former husband, the late W. Eugene Smith, helped to spread the news internationally through a photo essay published in “Life” magazine in 1972. It included “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath,” a black-and-white picture depicting a mother cradling her deformed, naked daughter.

The famous image was also featured in their 1975 book, “Minamata,” which Aileen is planning to republish (Tomoko’s family have agreed to allow the picture, which was withdrawn from further publication in 1997, to feature in the republished book).

The Smiths made the decision to move to the coastal town of Minamata in September 1971. A three-month visit turned into a three-year stay during which time they took more than 1,300 rolls of film between them.

Chisso Corp. started releasing untreated wastewater into Minamata Bay in 1932, the year it began producing acetaldehyde, which uses mercury as a catalyst. | W. EUGENE SMITH
Chisso Corp. started releasing untreated wastewater into Minamata Bay in 1932, the year it began producing acetaldehyde, which uses mercury as a catalyst.| W. EUGENE SMITH

Their story forms the basis of Andrew Levitas’ feature-length movie, “Minamata,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Johnny Depp stars as Eugene (commonly referred to as Gene), a famous war correspondent known for his emotionally charged, candid images, while the role of Aileen is taken on by French-Japanese actress Minami Bages.

One of the most striking scenes in the film takes place during a demonstration at a Chisso plant in Goi near Tokyo, where the Smiths and several activists were set upon by a group of goons acting on company orders. Eugene took the worst beating and, according to Aileen, was “thrown down to the concrete before being dragged along by his mouth.”

Vertebrae in his neck were crushed and he suffered from ulnar nerve entrapment. He continued working after the incident, but would often faint while taking pictures.

“The injuries shortened his life, I’m sure of that,” Smith says. “He never had high blood pressure but it was off the charts after Goi.”

Smith says no one was prosecuted for the attack.

“It was on the news and in the Yomiuri newspaper the next day, yet the police, who were good at recording everything, lost the evidence,” she says. “Even something that clear can be made to go away by the powers that be. That’s the sway that Chisso had and still has now.”

A hugely influential corporation, Chisso was responsible for a large percentage of the jobs in the area and accounted for almost half of the city’s tax revenues at one point, despite privileged exemptions. The success of its factory was tied to the growth of a burgeoning local economy and, as a result, taking on the chemical giant was a risk.

Chisso started releasing untreated wastewater into Minamata Bay in 1932, the year it began producing acetaldehyde, which uses mercury as a catalyst. This potent neurotoxin flowed out of the factory’s drainage channel before making its way up the food chain from the marine ecosystem’s smallest organisms — phytoplankton and zooplankton — to people’s dinner plates.

Chisso Corp.'s factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in June 1970 | KYODO
Chisso Corp.’s factory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in June 1970 | KYODO

By the 1950s, abnormalities were reportedly being observed in animals in the area, most notably cats that foamed at the mouth, had convulsions and threw themselves in the water in what became known as “cat dancing fever.” Crows reportedly fell from the sky and floating dead fish were found on the surface of the bay.

In the spring of 1956, a 5-year-old girl was examined at Chisso’s factory hospital as she was having difficulty walking and speaking. Her younger sister, exhibiting similar symptoms, was hospitalized two days later. More people followed and, on May 1 of that year, Minamata disease was officially recognized.

Following a series of investigations, mercury poisoning was identified as the most likely cause and Chisso became the prime suspect. Rather than halting proceedings, the company decided to discharge its wastewater into Minamata River instead, resulting in new patients in villages up and down the coast of the Shiranui Sea. This included children suffering from what was at the time an unrecognized congenital form of the disease.

Protesters demonstrate outside of Chisso Corp.'s plant in Goi near Tokyo. | AILEEN MIOKO SMITH
Protesters demonstrate outside of Chisso Corp.’s plant in Goi near Tokyo. | AILEEN MIOKO SMITH

With three other pollution-related diseases making headlines in Japan — itai-itai disease in Toyama Prefecture, Yokkaichi asthma in Mie Prefecture and Minamata disease in Niigata Prefecture — the scrutiny on companies responsible intensified. After the government officially announced that methylmercury was the causative agent of Minamata disease (12 years after its discovery) a four-year court case ensued and, in 1973, Chisso was forced to pay the litigation group a total of ¥937 million, the largest sum awarded by a Japanese court.

“That was just the beginning,” says activist Kimiyo Ito. “Today, there are many congenital victims who have never been recognized as having the disease. Fetuses were exposed to mercury in their mother’s wombs, which led to many miscarriages and stillbirths.”

Ito says some children with extreme disabilities received compensation while for others symptoms weren’t so obvious.

“They were able to finish school and get jobs,” she says. “Many hid their health issues because of discrimination, but their conditions worsened as they got older.”

Inspired by Michiko Ishimure’s award-winning book “Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease,” Ito moved from Tokyo to Kumamoto Prefecture in 1969 and has remained in the area ever since. As well as continuing to lobby those in power, she also helps patients submit documents, assists with their general care and runs the NGO Toh-mi-no-ie, a home-type facility for victims.

“Things are similar to how they were 50 years ago: The government and Chisso still don’t truly understand Minamata disease,” Ito says. “They do to a certain degree, but as there hasn’t been a proper investigation into the illnesses of congenital victims born in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s easier for them to reject the claims of patients and hope they’ll go away. They won’t.”

In the Fukuoka case, presiding Judge Kazuto Nishii stated that the eight plaintiffs probably hadn’t been exposed to sufficiently high levels of mercury to develop the disease as they wouldn’t have eaten much polluted fish after 1957. He ruled that there wasn’t sufficient proof that their symptoms had been caused by methylmercury poisoning and could’ve been the result of other factors.

Kimiyo Ito (right) believes many congenital victims such as Shinobu Sakamoto (left) have never been recognized as having Minamata disease. | YASUSHI SAITO
Kimiyo Ito (right) believes many congenital victims such as Shinobu Sakamoto (left) have never been recognized as having Minamata disease. | YASUSHI SAITO

A statement released by the Minamata Disease Victims Mutual Aid Association after the ruling described the decision as “unjust and unreasonable.” If comprehensive studies involving an epidemiological investigation were to be undertaken, it would “reveal beyond any doubt” that the Fukuoka plaintiffs plus many more residents were victims, the association says.

“The Supreme Court ruling in 2004 affirmed that administrative responsibility for Minamata disease lies with national and prefectural governments,” says Yoichi Tani, Ito’s husband. “Conducting a thorough inspection of the damage would result in huge payouts and that’s what they’re trying to avoid. They claim they’re trying to develop effective investigation methods but that’s just an excuse for them to do nothing while huge numbers miss out on compensation.”

The next step for the plaintiffs, he says, is to appeal to the Supreme Court. At the same time, another ongoing litigation demanding the cancellation of the government’s decision to reject Minamata disease certification is expected to be concluded at Kumamoto District Court next spring.

Yoichi Tani is a leading spokesperson for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty adopted in 2013 aimed at protecting the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury. | YASUSHI SAITO
Yoichi Tani is a leading spokesperson for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty adopted in 2013 aimed at protecting the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury. | YASUSHI SAITO

As the secretary-general of the Victim Mutual Aid Society, Tani continues to play a key role in preparing legal briefs for these lawsuits. He’s also become a leading spokesperson for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty adopted in 2013 aimed at protecting the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury.

Although the convention entered into force in 2017, mercury emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate (an increase of more than 20% in the past five years). By the end of 2020, the 123 parties that have thus far ratified the convention are required to cease the manufacture, import and export of several mercury-containing products listed in the agreement.

“We need every country to ratify the treaty, impose stricter regulations, and prohibit the mining and discharge of mercury,” Tani says. “We’re still waiting on 63 nations. A request has been sent to each one along with a video message from congenital victims, Shinobu Sakamoto and Koichiro Matsunaga.”

Today, Sakamoto often gets headaches and has slurred speech.

“I’m frustrated when I think that without Minamata disease, I could have run like everyone else,” Sakamoto says. “Many people are still suffering. It’s incurable. Please deal with mercury properly so we can protect women and children.”

Attendees pray in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, during a memorial ceremony in May 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of Minamata disease being officially recognized. | KYODO
Attendees pray in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, during a memorial ceremony in May 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of Minamata disease being officially recognized. | KYODO

Matsunaga agrees.

“The government has prioritized the economy over the lives of people,” Matsunaga says. “I know people sometimes do the wrong thing, but once you notice the mistake, you should have the courage to stop it.”

Matsunaga calls on more countries to ratify the convention.

“We need more positive action to regulate its use all over the world,” Matsunaga says. “By not regulating mercury now, many children in the future will be affected just as we’ve been. Do not repeat the tragedy that occurred in Minamata in your country.”

Aileen Mioko Smith | COURTESY OF AILEEN MIOKO SMITH
Aileen Mioko Smith | COURTESY OF AILEEN MIOKO SMITH

Raising global awareness of the issue is vital if the convention is to get anywhere near achieving its objectives. The hope is that Levitas’ movie could help.

At a news conference in March, Depp said it was important to “harness the power of the media or cinema to open up people’s eyes to something that happened and happens to this day.”

Green Action and the environmental organization IPEN used the event to distribute flyers bearing the words “No More Minamatas.”

“According to those handing them out there were three kinds of reactions,” Smith says. “Some were flabbergasted that this happened in Japan, others were too overwhelmed with it all and then there were people who asked for a bunch of flyers because they had to immediately tell their friends. That’s the influence of cinema — it has an ability to move audiences and create energy from that.”

Smith wants the world to learn about the plight of the victims as well as Gene’s work and his belief in the integrity of journalism.

“He fought to get the truth out and we must continue to do the same,” she says. “Minamata is a modern-day issue that needs to be resolved and examined for the sake of future generations.”

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