On May 1, 1956, a local public health center in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, reported the occurrence of a “rare disease of unknown cause” afflicting four people who showed symptoms of an unexplained brain disorder. This was the first official recognition of Minamata disease, Japan’s worst industrial pollution-induced disease caused by methyl mercury contained in wastewater released into the Yatsushiro Sea from the Minamata factory of chemicals maker Chisso Corp.
On May 1, 2010, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama became the first prime minister to attend an annual memorial service for the Minamata disease victims held in the city and apologized for the government’s failure to prevent both the spread of the industrial pollution and the outbreak of the neurological disease.
The organic mercury poisoning affected residents in eastern coastal areas of Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures and 2,271 people in the areas have been officially recognized as Minamata disease sufferers. In 1965 similar symptoms were found among residents along the Agano River in Niigata Prefecture — the first recognition of Daini (Second) Minamata disease, which was found to be caused by wastewater from a chemicals factory of Showa Denko K.K.
On the day when Mr. Hatoyama attended the memorial service, his administration started accepting applications for new measures to relieve unrecognized Minamata disease sufferers. They are based on a 2009 special law to help unrecognized sufferers and on a March 29 basic agreement that more than 2,000 unrecognized sufferers of Minamata disease, who had filed damage suits against Chisso Corp. and the central and Kumamoto prefectural governments, had reached with the three defendants through court mediation.
The new relief measures will feature a lump-sum payment of ¥2.1 million and a monthly medical allowance of ¥12,900 to ¥17,700 for each unrecognized sufferer. The association of plaintiffs will also receive ¥2.95 billion. The measures are expected to cover more than 35,000 sufferers — a great step forward in helping Minamata disease sufferers. But they are not automatic. There will be screening.
The central government must learn a harsh lesson from the fact that since the first report of the disease in 1956, it took 54 years to come up with the new relief measures.
In 1959, the Minamata disease research panel of Kumamoto University’s medical school announced that organic mercury is the cause of the disease that affects the central nervous system. Later the same year, the Food Sanitation Investigation Council of the then Health and Welfare Ministry determined that the main cause of the disease was an organic mercury compound.
It was only in 1968 that the central government announced the unified view that a methyl mercury compound released from Chisso’s Minamata factory causes Minamata disease. Incredibly, in the meantime, Chisso continued to release wastewater containing organic mercury, afflicting more people.
Early relief measures failed to cover a large number of Minamata disease sufferers. Criteria for recognition of sufferers included in a 1973 compensation agreement between Chisso and sufferers were so strict that many people failed to be recognized as sufferers.
In 1977, the central government adopted criteria for screening people applying for official recognition as Minamata disease sufferers. Under the criteria, only a person suffering from a combination of mercury-poisoning symptoms such as sensory disturbances and visual field constriction could be recognized as a sufferer. These turned out to be so strict that many people failed to receive recognition, forcing many to resort to damage suits.
The central government in 1995 worked out a political settlement that included a lump-sum payment of ¥2.6 million and medical allowances. Since the application period was only a half year, it covered only about 10,000 unrecognized sufferers. As damage suits continued, the Supreme Court in 2004 ruled that a person with only a single symptom should also be recognized as a sufferer if the symptom is accompanied by certain conditions. The problem is that two different criteria — the central government’s and the Supreme Court’s — exist. The central government should quickly align its criteria with the top court’s.
In his May 1 speech, Mr. Hatoyama said, “I don’t think that (the new relief measures) mark an end to the Minamata disease issue.” In fact, the measures exclude people born after November 1969 and the geographical areas covered are limited.
He said the central government will promote medical care and welfare for sufferers, ensure the health monitoring of those in affected areas who have health worries, and strengthen people’s ties in affected communities. He also said he will push a Minamata treaty for global efforts to prevent the spread of mercury pollution. The central government should not lose any time taking such actions.
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