Advertisement

Victims Not Ready to Close Books on Minamata Saga

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Shinobu Sakamoto labors to produce speech from her poison-twisted body, her hands flutter like wounded birds, her right eye rolls upward and her mouth contorts with effort. She needs a friend to translate some of the ensuing sounds into language a stranger can understand.

The process is slow and obviously exhausting, but Sakamoto is undaunted. She is angry and wants to be heard.

Born 41 years ago in Minamata, on the western coast of the island of Kyushu, to a fisherman and his wife, Sakamoto was poisoned in the womb when her mother ate mercury-contaminated fish. An older sister died, convulsing in agony, at age 5; both of Sakamoto’s parents also suffer from what is now known around the world as “Minamata disease.”

Their horrifying symptoms were later found to have been caused by mercury-laden effluent dumped into Minamata Bay by the Chisso Corp. chemical firm in what remains Japan’s worst environmental health disaster.

Advertisement

After more than 1,000 deaths, decades of lawsuits that were settled only last year and a huge cleanup effort that has cost more than $342 million, authorities have now declared Minamata Bay safe for fishing once more. Mercury concentrations in the mud and fish have dropped to within government safety limits, and the steel net that was stretched across the mouth of the contaminated bay in 1977 will be removed, perhaps as early as this month, officials said.

Over the past two decades, the 1.3-mile-long net has become a symbol of the ecological disaster. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the net has done little to contain the mercury contamination because fish and mud easily pass through its 4-inch holes. But it did succeed in persuading a panicky public not to shun fish taken from other waters of the Shiranui Sea.

The July 29 announcement by Kumamoto prefecture Gov. Joji Fukushima that the bay’s ecology is now “in great shape,” and the impending removal of the net, is seen by some as the final chapter in the ghastly Minamata saga.

Many believe that Minamata’s legacy was to put an end to the period of Japanese industrial policy that a Kumamoto court once defined as “profits first and human life last.”

Advertisement

Merchants, farmers and other residents of this lush, lovely city of 33,000 also hope to close the books on the disaster and rebuild Minamata’s shattered economy and reputation. The very name “Minamata” still causes many Japanese to shudder, and residents unaffected by the mercury have been stigmatized.

“There has been a long history of discrimination against Minamata--the image that not just its fish, but its daikon [Japanese radishes], mikan [oranges] and green tea were tainted,” said Kunio Endo of the Minamata Disease Center Soshisha, one of several victims groups. “Of course there was no contamination of agricultural products. . . . But when you say something is from Minamata, it won’t sell. It’s extremely unjust.”

But more than 11,300 people who say they have suffered from mercury poisoning are still living, and the long-term effects on the local ecology and population have yet to be studied, activists said. They warn that it is too soon to declare Minamata’s ordeal over. “It’s won’t end as long as we are alive,” Sakamoto said.

Some Minamata residents and environmental activists also expressed doubts about whether fishing in Minamata Bay is really safe--and how well Japan has mastered the lessons of Minamata.

Advertisement

Although Japan adopted some of the tightest standards in the world to avert many kinds of industrial pollution in the wake of the Minamata tragedy, environmental activists say the regulations still have glaring gaps. Japan, for example, adopted formal emission standards for dioxins only this year--a decade after strict regulation of the carcinogenic chemicals was adopted in the United States and Western Europe, said Teiichi Aoyama of the Environmental Research Institute in Tokyo.

“When you look at how much people have learned from Minamata, you must say that people understand it intellectually, but their behavior has not changed much,” Aoyama said.

Government action on critical environmental issues has come about only under extreme pressure from citizen movements, activist scientists and the media, he said.

The symbiosis of bureaucrats and business has also played a role, with the powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry lobbying the Environmental Agency to help protect manufacturers from burdensome environmental regulation, Aoyama said.

Advertisement

Collusion between powerful bureaucrats and big business has long been a complaint in Minamata, which was a Chisso-run company town, say activists who struggled unsuccessfully for a decade to persuade the government to order Chisso to stop dumping waste into the bay. That legacy of mistrust has made some residents unwilling to accept assurances that the Minamata fish are safe.

“If you ate fish every day, there is the possibility that you might develop the disease,” said Saburo Hashiguchi, 71, a fisherman-turned-activist. Experts say that danger is long past--but nobody knows whether finicky Japanese fish wholesalers and consumers will believe them.

The government says that mercury levels in all 16 species of Minamata Bay fish have dropped below the strict national standard of 0.4 parts per million. Moreover, large sections of the ocean floor were dredged to remove mud in which mercury concentrations exceeded 10 ppm. The mud was used as landfill--about 129 acres of ocean now is being turned into a bamboo park and an athletic center.

Meanwhile, Chisso Corp. has paid fishermen to extract about 140 tons of fish from the poisoned harbor. Fish with high mercury content were stored until they rotted so the heavy metal could be extracted, while less tainted fish were incinerated.

Advertisement

Experts are divided as to whether the program helped clean the bay by removing the larger fish in whose bodies mercury tends to concentrate. But the program has provided an average of $1.2 million a year in income since 1992 for the fishermen, whose way of life was destroyed by the disaster.

Fisherman Hashiguchi said he developed his first mercury poisoning symptoms in 1955, when “I stopped being able to feel my hands and toes.”

That was a year after the outbreak of “cat dancing disease,” when villagers reported that their pets went mad, developing “epilepsy” and throwing themselves into fires or plunging into the sea. A year later, humans began to develop numbness, inability to control their muscles, visual disturbances, deafness, tremors, convulsions and other symptoms as the mercury damaged their central nervous systems.

The ghastly situation received international attention as famed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith battled local resistance to chronicle the plight of the afflicted.

Advertisement

Hashiguchi and his wife, who died last year, were among the 2,262 people officially certified as Minamata disease victims, and they won a settlement from Chisso in 1973.

An additional 10,350 people from Minamata, as well as other areas all around the Shiranui Sea, claim to have suffered mercury poisoning but have been unable to persuade the government medical board--a body that they claim does Chisso’s bidding--to certify their illness. They accepted a settlement of $24,000 each last year.

Chisso also pays $26.6 million a year for medical care for the 1,007 certified Minamata victims still living, said Masatoshi Koga, Chisso’s management division chief.

Asked what he had learned from his 35 years in Minamata, Koga replied: “Everything. That you must not have blind faith in technology, what a huge thing it is to be held socially responsible for this pollution and how difficult the remediation is. Making amends has been so difficult. The reparations were so huge. . . . I have learned so much.”

Advertisement

Minamata disease quickly taught Japanese business that polluting does not pay, but social reconciliation between victims and polluter and between the government and its citizens began only after last year’s settlement, Koga and the activists agreed.

“No matter what, I hate them--it makes me angry,” Sakamoto said, apparently referring to both the government and Chisso. “They haven’t done anything for us. To be honest, receiving their money does not make me happy at all.”

For some victims, bitterness also springs from the ostracism that added mental anguish to their physical suffering. Soon after the recognition of a mysterious disease in Minamata in 1956, rumors spread that the illness was contagious, and passengers on trains would shut their windows when they passed through the town, Hashiguchi said.

“A lot of people did not apply [for certification as victims] because if you did, your children would have trouble getting jobs or getting married,” Hashiguchi said. “You would also be kicked out of the fishermen’s union because they said the people who complained about sickness were making the fish not sell.”

Advertisement

A number of Japanese politicians made matters worse by publicly suggesting that Minamata residents were faking illness so as to gain compensation.

Now the Minamata victims are aging and in families where mercury poisoning has struck two generations, the question of who will care for the elderly looms large.

On her good days, Sakamoto can visit friends and weave scarves. On days when her chronic head pain flares up, she listens to music on tape. Her vision is poor, and she cannot read or watch television. Her mother helps her with tasks like washing her hair. But sometimes her mother is also too ill to help. Ultimately, the burden of caring for Sakamoto and her parents is likely to fall on her younger brother’s wife, family friends say.

“I feel very uneasy about the future,” Sakamoto said.

Advertisement

Etsuko Kawase of The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.


Advertisement