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30 Years After Mercury Poisoning at Minamata : Ecological Disaster at Japan Village Leaves Legacy of Suffering

The Washington Post

Shinobu Sakamoto struggles every morning to button her blouse. She manages fitfully to reach her mouth with most of her breakfast rice.

Then she sets forth to work, walking in tortuous, jerky movements and contemplating, she said in badly slurred speech, “what it must be like to run, to feel free.”

Each painful step by the 30-year-old woman symbolizes the legacy of human suffering in this bucolic, seaside town 30 years after the first and grimmest environmental disaster of modern times struck Minamata.

As much as Hiroshima echoes the horrors of atomic war, Minamata is a living monument to ecological apocalypse.

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Mercury Poisoning

A generation has passed since tons of lethal mercury dumped into Minamata Bay by a giant chemical company traveled up the food chain, killing 700 people and crippling as many as 9,000 others here. Today Minamata is still staggering from the consequences.

The ghosts are everywhere in this town of 35,000--in hospitals, where palsied, brain-damaged victims wait to die; in workshops, where partially functional victims, like Sakamoto, strive for basic life skills; in courtrooms, where legal battles against the polluter rage on; in the harbor once bulging with fishing boats, now filled in with earth; in the depressed economy.

The area has lost a third of its population. Families have broken up, and there are deep social divisions over the way the disaster has shaped Minamata’s fortunes. Then there is the lingering social stigma of a city whose very name is associated with gruesome disease and death.

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When Minamata youths leave for other cities, they often conceal their place of origin to avoid bias. They have been rebuffed romantically by partners fearing the effects of their exposure on children. Prospective employers have rejected them for fear they may be contagious.

“At Hiroshima, the human destruction was painfully clear as soon as the bomb was dropped,” Takanori Goto, a lawyer who represents Minamata victims, said. “At Minamata, the death and paralysis crept up slowly. The suffering is still going on.”

Minamata. The very name sears the memory. More recent environmental crises in Bhopal, India, and in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union may eventually cause greater human and property loss.

But neither evokes the poignant images of Minamata--the twisted bodies of children; the cats hurling themselves into the bay to commit suicide; the anguished faces of survivors, and always the sea, the great source of civilization and livelihood here infelicitously transformed into the town’s cup of poison.

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When the cup spilled, it soiled more than Minamata. As many as 50,000 people who lived within 35 miles of the bay and who consumed its fish are said to have suffered at least mild symptoms of mercury poisoning.

Facing the Shiranui Sea on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Minamata was for centuries a simple fishing and farming village. In 1907, the first factory opened here, a chemical company named Chisso Corp.

Chisso built a large factory in the middle of town and spewed its chemical wastes down a long, open pipe that drained into the bay half a mile downhill. The wastes contained mercury that had been used in the production of acetaldehyde, a component of plastics.

As the plastic industry boomed, up to 600 tons of mercury was dumped, most of it after World War II. In 1956, mercury levels in the bay exceeded safety standards 400-fold.

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The effects surfaced in the 1950s. Fish bellied up. Sea birds dropped into the water and drowned. An outbreak of “cat dancing disease,” in which cats staggered, salivated, convulsed and collapsed, wiped out Minamata’s feline population.

In April, 1956, a 6-year-old girl hospitalized for imbalance and delirium became the first officially recognized human victim. Within months, another 50 cases were reported.

Mercury’s dangers have been well-known since the ancient Romans sentenced their worst criminals to work in the quicksilver mines of Spain. But it took the catastrophe here to fashion the name “Minamata disease,” which describes the host of central nervous system disorders caused by consumption of the heavy metal: blindness, seizures, numbness in extremities, tremors, paralysis, unconsciousness, congenital deformities and death.

Although a Chisso scientist is said to have secretly discovered the cause of the disease in 1959 by feeding the acetaldehyde effluent to cats, the company continued to dump mercury-laden wastes for another nine years while deaths and injuries mounted.

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The first in a series of court verdicts found Chisso criminally negligent in 1973, forcing open the company’s coffers for compensation. A flow of indemnities, medical payments and living allowances ordered by judges and government disability boards since then has cost the firm more than $500 million.

It is small compensation for residents of the Bright Water Garden Center, a sanitarium for the cruelest symbols of Chisso’s betrayal.

There in a room of large baby cribs lie seven congenital victims of mercury dumping, poisoned in their mothers’ wombs about 30 years ago, now adults wrapped in diapers, fed by others and consigned to lives without comprehension or basic dignity.

“She can recognize the face of her parents,” said Dr. Isaoshi Mishima, the director, pointing to a 29-year-old woman lying in her bed. “The rest of them are like vegetables.”

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Mishima, whose 60-patient center overlooks the calm, sparkling Shiranui, gazed out his office window at the water and asked: “How can such tragedy come from this beautiful sea? These people did nothing to bring this upon themselves.”

Severity Differs

The disease ranged in severity here, quickly killing 40% of the acutely ill and leaving thousands with varing degrees of brain damage and paralysis.

Sakamoto, whose life spans the disaster’s 30 years, was spared enough brain capacity to know, as she says, that “I am different.” A small, stooped woman with an infectious smile, she twists her face and wildly blinks her eyes as she tells an interviewer that “I am angry that Chisso made the sea dirty. If there was no Minamata disease, the city would be much happier.”

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She struggles to approach normality. By day, she works at a backyard paper factory set up for victims. She bristles when young boys make fun of her clumsy gait and speech impediment. Generally, however, she accepts her fate, knowing, for example, that she will never marry.

Still, said Sakamoto, “I’m afraid of the night.” Then, she lies in bed and wonders, “What will be my future? What will happen to my body and my mind? I’d like to live a long time unless there is unpleasantness.”

Tsuginori Hamamoto, 51, was a teen-ager working for Chisso when his parents became sick. He watched both of them die in the late 1950s, his father “convulsing like the dancing cats,” his mother blind, paralyzed and pleading for death. At 19, the disease paralyzed him from the waist down and caused hand tremors.

Company Broke Faith

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“I was born as a human being, but I can’t do what a normal human being can do,” he said. “The cycle of life from young adulthood to marriage to child-bearing has been denied me.”

The mercury dumping by Chisso broke more than bodies. It broke faith with the simple fishermen who looked to Chisso in the filial way Japanese firms are traditionally seen, lawyer Goto said.

The company’s duplicity, once revealed, ignited a fury among victims rare in a rural Asian society. They struck back in violent confrontations at Chisso corporate offices and in lawsuits.

More than 2,500 victims have been awarded damages--$200,000 per death and $120,000 per injury. Another 7,000 are seeking Chisso payments through courts or government panels set up to determine the extent of injury and compensation.

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Still Large Corporation

Still one of Japan’s largest corporations, Chisso has lost money every year since 1973, diverting profits earned by its far-flung operations to the victims of Minamata.

The financial burden has forced the company to cut back production and the labor force at some of its plants, including Minamata’s, where the number of workers employed directly or indirectly by the firm has declined by two-thirds since 1956.

Minamata has not recovered from the loss of the 4,000 Chisso jobs or the death of the fishing industry after the bay was closed. Tourists who once flocked here for hot springs and natural beauty stopped coming for fear of getting sick. Few have returned.

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Hard-pressed economically, the town derives 40% of its revenue from government subsidies. Its unemployment rate, double the national average, would be much higher if not for the exodus of young people to jobs in other cites. Minamata’s population has dropped from 50,000 in 1956 to 35,000 today.

Social Divisions

The economic hardships provoked social divisions, with nonvictims blaming victims for the loss of jobs. A woman recently awarded compensation was accused by neighbors of faking symptoms and was called a thief as she deposited her money in the bank.

“It may be true that these people ate fish from the bay, but just because their fingers are numb doesn’t mean they have Minamata disease,” said Koichi Sato, a top environmental official for Kumamoto Prefecture, which has been sued by victims for allegedly failing to prevent Chisso from dumping mercury in the bay.

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“Some people exaggerate their problems to win compensation,” Sato said.

An ongoing battle here centers on historical interpretation of the disaster, with non-victims trying to play down its effects and significance.

Legislation Sought

Local politicians have sought national legislation to rename the disease. Some schools have stopped showing historical films on the tragedy and deleted Chisso’s name from teaching materials. Non-victims oppose efforts by victims to establish a university here devoted to environmental problems.

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Chisso’s financial obligation remains controversial. Non-victims argue that Chisso is vital to Minamata’s prosperity, that the firm has paid enough and that victims are greedily bankrupting it. Victims argue that the more Chisso has to pay, the more other corporate polluters will learn the cost of polluting.

Other companies might have collapsed under the weight of such debts. But not Chisso. Narinobu Terazono, the firm’s general manager, said: “We have to fulfill our duty to the victims. To achieve that, we must stay in business.”

Minamata, for all the devastation caused by the mercury dumping, bears few external scars. Chisso’s sprawling complex of smokestacks, electric generators and warehouses still dominates the city of wooden-frame, tile-roofed houses and tidy vegetable gardens dropped on narrow, winding streets.

Stripped of Its Soul

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On Minamata’s southern tip, huge cranes and mounds of dirt give witness to a less visible wound. There, tons of earth are being piled into the bay, dealing the final blow to a centuries-old culture and economy rooted in the sea.

Minamata was once a village of gentle fishermen who sang of the sea, taught their children its wonders and lived off its fruits.

The loss of the sea stripped Minamata of its soul, said Aileen Smith, co-author with her late husband, W. Eugene Smith, of a book of photographs titled “Minamata.” She was reminded during a recent visit, she said, of an American Indian reservation displaced from ancestral tribal lands.

“It really killed a whole way of life,” Smith said of the mercury pollution.

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Faded Memory

Minamata has become a faded memory to most of the world 30 years after it sounded alarm bells everywhere ringing with the dangers of pollution. The toxic gas leak in Bhopal and the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor have overtaken Minamata as symbols of environmental crisis.

But here, in the eyes of disaster, the lessons of three decades ago are woven into life’s fabric, undiminished in their pain and prevalence.

“Wherever I go, Minamata disease follows me,” Sakamoto said. “It is my fate.”

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