Contents - Previous - Next


This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu


2 Responses to Minamata disease

Sadami Maruyama


Introduction
Who are the victims of Minamata disease?
Official recognition of Minamata disease and the initial response
Chisso's grip on the local community
Neglect in preventing the spread of disease
Problems associated with relief and reparations
How the local community suppressed the victims
Conclusions
Editor's postscript
Chronology
Notes
References


Introduction

Minamata is a Japanese city of 34,000 people on the north-west coast of Kumamoto Prefecture in the island of Kyushu. It lies astride a small river that empties into Minamata Bay, an arm of the semienclosed Shiranui (Yatsushiro) Sea. This sea is about 50 miles long and 10 miles wide and is separated from the open ocean by a chain of small mountainous islands (fig. 2.1).

Minamata disease is the name given to mercury toxicosis (poisoning) that developed in people who ate contaminated seafood taken from Minamata Bay and adjacent coastal waters in the period after World War II. During this time, methyl mercury was dumped into the sea as an unwanted by-product of acetaldehyde processing at the Chisso Company Limited industrial plant in Minamata.1

Almost forty years have passed since Minamata disease was officially recognized in May 1956 but, despite an urgent need for relief of victims and restoration of fishing grounds, these and many other issues still remain to be resolved. Although resolution is complicated by the dispersion and diversity of victims, the slow and incomplete response is mainly due to the actions of individuals and organizations that confused and dragged out the entire recovery process.

This chapter emphasizes the victims' perspective and focuses on how governmental and corporate evasion of responsibility for the disaster frustrated attempts at providing needed relief and restitution.2 It provides clues about what can be done to speed the recovery of any local community that has been hollowed out by lingering environmental disaster and offers guidance to prevent a recurrence of similar situations elsewhere.

Fig. 2.1 The Minamata region

Who are the victims of Minamata disease?

It is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the victims of Minamata disease before proceeding to an analysis of the disaster response. Victims can be divided into two groups - primary and secondary. The primary victims suffered physical disabilities and impair meet, whereas the secondary victims experienced a variety of other losses (e.g. economic, social, psychological).

As of 31 March 1993, the official government tally of confirmed victims was 2,255 (both living and dead) with 2,376 others who are still seeking to be classified as victims.3 The number of persons refused certification has climbed to 12,503. The actual total of victims is undoubtedly larger than the official figures because an unknown number of people died from the disease without certification or chose not to apply for certification. Some physicians estimate that at least half of the 200,000 people who lived along the coast of the Shiranui Sea in the late 1950s were affected by some form of mercury poisoning.

Patients who died when the disease entered an acute stage suffered incomparable misery. Others who survived carry severe physical and psychological scars. Those with minor symptoms such as ataxia and inertia often also exhibit signs of neurological disorder together with intellectual impairment. These afflictions hinder every aspect of their daily lives, including work and social relations. A large number of children acquired the disease before birth via transfer across the placenta from the mother.

Sadly, there is no effective means of medication for Minamata disease. Above all, there is no possibility of recovery for nerve cells that are destroyed by methyl mercury. Practically no research on probable means of treatment is under way. The primary victims of Minamata disease could not seek work and were forced to bear heavy medical and nursing costs. Usually, these costs were transferred to the victims' families because mutual aid among family members is traditional in this community. As a result, many poor families have had to scrape the bottom of the barrel just to make ends meet. By the end of 1959, only 43 per cent of households with Minamata disease patients were receiving any sort of public assistance. Entire households were faced with collapse. To make matters worse, the dismal symptoms of Minamata disease were unprecedented and therefore particularly threatening. This socalled "strange disease" was feared by residents of the fishing hamlets, who turned against the afflicted because they were thought to be carriers of contagion. The government's practice of disinfecting and isolating patients in hospitals provided grounds for these fears. Thus, patients lost the support of a normally friendly and cooperative community. They were deprived of mutual aid and their families were ostracized by neighbours.

When the cause of Minamata disease was finally identified, people who lived near, or fished in, the contaminated area came under even greater pressure from outsiders. The fact that fish were the medium by which the disease was spread, crippled the fisheries. Not only did regional catches decline because of pollution but sales of locally caught fish were entirely prohibited. As a result, fishermen became obsessed by the possibility that the disease might spread and did what they could to shut the disease out of their lives. Fishing cooperatives methodically plotted to conceal new cases of poisoning. Families with disease-afflicted persons became more and more alienated and isolated.

One fact was clear to all: the natural environment was being degraded. Evidence of marine pollution was clear before humans went down with Minamata disease. Fisheries were already in trouble. Some local fishermen tried to combat declining catches by turning to new fishing techniques and new locations, but they met with no success because pollution was widespread. As a result, many sold their boats and sought employment on shore. A great number of others moved away from the area. The widespread migration of victims accounts for the fact that many lawsuits were brought against Chisso, the prefecture of Kumamoto, and the national government by persons who lived in Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, and elsewhere.

Minamata disease is typical of modern industrial pollution in so far as it manifests a wide geographic spread of impacts and casualties. Furthermore, like other industrial pollution disasters, most of the effects are concentrated in lower socio-economic groups such as labourers from primary industries - in this case fishermen and their families. But the natural environment also suffers heavily, and with it a variety of other groups who have recreation and tourism interests. Public beaches are particularly impaired, especially those that provide tidewater fishing, crabbing, and opportunities for leisure strolls. In other words, Minamata disease affects virtually every element of the local community. Most of these issues remain to be resolved before the problems of recovery can be said to have been properly addressed.

Official recognition of Minamata disease and the initial response

The first signs that something was amiss in the seas near Minamata appeared around 1949. Dead fish floated on top of the bay and shellfish emitted a noxious odour when opened. Soon, catches began to decline. By 1953, local residents reported that cats "danced" in circles before collapsing into the bay; seabirds and crows were also observed spiralling unexpectedly into the sea. Shortly thereafter, the first cases of human sickness were noted.

The immediate response of the local government and residents was vigorous and uncontroversial. A research committee was organized by the city of Minamata. Public health officials and the local medical association moved quickly to discover the cause of the disease and to search for preventive measures as well as appropriate treatments for the victims. Within two or three months it was clear that the worst-affected areas were fishing hamlets along the shores of the bay. The symptoms of an apparently contagious disease were also identified. Emergency actions were quickly mounted. Patients were admitted to a hospital isolation ward. Some experts suggested that they might be suffering from encephalitis japonica - sleeping sickness. Others thought that a possibly contagious disease was involved, so the government repeatedly disinfected places associated with large numbers of cases.

A change in the speed and effectiveness of responses came about after heavy metal poisoning of fish began to be suspected as the chief culprit. When industrial effluents from Chisso came under suspicion, there was a marked slackening of efforts to identify the disease and prevent its worsening. The entire matter was put into the hands of prefectural and national governments rather than local groups. In the process, local citizens lost the ability to bring about directly a speedy resolution of the problem. Some of the blame for this unproductive turn of events must be shared by the residents of Minamata, but it is clear that the main contributors to disaster were a combination of business practices that gave priority to production and ignored environmental pollution, and the principle of governmental promotion of industries at any cost - including dangerous pollution.

Chisso's grip on the local community


The making of Minamata
Environmental destruction before Minamata disease


The making of Minamata

The city of Minamata grew along with the expansion of Chisso. Indeed, the city served as a model company town. The penetration of Chisso's influence and that of affiliated companies is shown by several statistics. Between 1956 and the early 1970s the industrial complex occupied 68 per cent of the city's land area and consumed 93 per cent of its water supply. Chisso-related businesses accounted for 30 per cent of retail sales, employed 19 per cent of the workforce and commissioned 66 per cent of all the shipping activity.

By the early 1960s, as Chisso started to invest in petrochemicals operations elsewhere, it began to reduce its stake in Minamata. But the company was still a pre-eminent force in the community (Nakamura 1975). For example, in 1960, despite privileged exemptions, Chisso accounted for 49 per cent of the city's total tax revenues (Funaba 1973). Chisso was Minamata's cashbox (Chisso 1955). Yet the extent of Chisso's influence on municipal policy was viewed as insufficient by company leaders, for employees were directed to involve themselves in municipal affairs and ensure that public policy was in accordance with Chisso's business operations.

The extent of Chisso's involvement in local government began during the period of rapid expansion after World War I. In 1925, the company entered its own candidates in local elections for the city council. The Plant Manager was among seven people elected to the council and a former Plant Director was elected Mayor. During the 20 years from 1950 to 1969, except for one brief period, the mayoral seat was continuously held by the Chisso Plant Manager.

Government penetration was not the only way that the Chisso company seized control of the local community. By identifying themselves as "Chisso of Minamata," corporate leaders also encouraged the belief that the firm and the community shared a "mutual destiny." These and other manoeuvres explain Chisso's success in taking control of the municipality but they do not account for their irresponsibility as managers of the local environment and the health of residents. From the outset, the company had a history of inflicting damage on the environment.

Environmental destruction before Minamata disease

In 1925, fishermen from Minamata demanded restitution from Chisso for damage caused by water pollution. They were fobbed off with a mimaikin - a consolation payment - and were required to drop all further complaints. But the pollution did not cease and further complaints were lodged in 1943 and 1954. In each case, Chisso used its power to limit compensation to small sums.

Local residents were also aware of other environmental problems that were traceable to actions taken by Chisso. These included dumping of effluent in the city's harbour that caused it to silt up and hampered shipping. Smoke, dust, noise, and vibrations were also widespread. Hazardous gases inflicted losses on crops and trees.

Complaints about pollution were always handled directly by the company without the intervention of the Minamata city government. As a result, there was no tradition of assistance to citizens by the local government. What might otherwise have surfaced as a social problem that would have necessitated the formulation of public policy was diverted into a series of private arrangements between the corporation and affected individuals. This means of responding to industrial pollution laid the groundwork for the later poor handling of Minamata disease.

Neglect in preventing the spread of disease


Manoeuvres to avoid a ban on fishing
Obstacles to identifying the cause of Minamata disease
Efforts to halt the dumping of contaminated wastes


Manoeuvres to avoid a ban on fishing

Measures to prevent further outbreaks of Minamata disease should have been taken once the cause was identified, but no such action occurred. When it became clear that contaminated fish and shellfish were the principal carriers of toxins, a comprehensive ban on fishing should have been adopted immediately. Instead, the Kumamoto prefectural government argued that it was unlawful to impose a ban because not all the seafood in the bay was poisoned. Hence, the government requested fishermen to refrain voluntarily from fishing in the bay or selling catches from it. But fishermen who contravened the ban were not penalized, nor were they supervised. In time, the area of polluted waters expanded and the disease spread along the entire coastal region of the Shiranui Sea. Though there was public pressure to change existing laws and institute a compulsory ban, nothing was done to amend the legislation.

Here was a failure of government. Fishermen were asked to accept unilateral self-restraint, whereas Chisso's dumping operations were given implicit approval. In the process, no thorough warning of the dangers of consuming contaminated seafood was provided for local citizens. Daily catches continued to be distributed and the number of infected people rose. Had a proper ban been imposed at the outset, it is probable that the disease would have been checked in its early stages. Even today, no such action has ever been taken, though court battles to apportion responsibility for the failure are in progress. So far, three verdicts have been handed down in the lower courts, two of which hold government administrators negligent.

Obstacles to identifying the cause of Minamata disease

Early investigations of Minamata disease were conducted by the School of Medicine at Kumamoto University. These soon disclosed that toxins in seafood from the bay were responsible, but the precise causes were not readily identifiable. Chisso and government officials took the position that, without conclusive proof of a particular cause or causes, no effective public action could be taken. Thus, researchers were forced to undertake a laborious series of trial-and-error tests of every possible toxin. During this period, the Mayor of Minamata formally notified the Ministry of Health and Welfare that agrochemicals used in farming might be implicated. This action was without scientific foundation and is representative of many attempts to redirect attention away from Chisso's effluents.

Late in 1959, the medical research group concluded that a particular type of organic mercury was the toxin that gave rise to Minamata disease. Fishermen and local residents readily embraced this conclusion and generated sufficient pressure to compel Chisso to stop dumping wastes into the sea. But the corporation contested the validity of the research and insisted that the mechanisms that caused the formation of methyl mercury be elucidated. Their spokespeople offered various counter-arguments. Though these were often voiced by university professors who served as paid consultants to the company, the arguments were based on fraudulent information and lacked a sound scientific footing. None the less, they delayed official identification of methyl mercury as the offending substance, thereby frustrating causal linkage of Chisso and the disease. Paradoxically, Chisso's own research had come to the conclusion that mercury pollutants were responsible for Minamata disease, but the results of this work were withheld from the public. All these manoeuvres slowed effective responses to the disease.

Public attention was also diverted by the settlement of actions against Chisso brought by the fishing industry and disease victims. At this time (December 1959) there was a general sense that the disease was abating and no longer much of a social problem, so attention again shifted to other matters.

In 1963, the medical research group at Kumamoto University finally released an official report announcing that the causative substance of Minamata disease was methyl mercury found in industrial wastes discharged by the Chisso plant. Both the company and the government appeared unconcerned. Their stance was that Minamata disease had been resolved as a social problem.

Coincidentally, a new outbreak of organic mercury poisoning occurred soon thereafter in the Agano river basin of Niigata Prefecture (1965). Again the pollutants were dumped by industry and again the offending corporation - the Showa Denko K.K. - refused to admit that it was the perpetrator. But this time public concern for environmental pollution had grown and the national government was compelled to investigate the disease fully. These events led to publication of an official statement about the cause of the original Minamata disease. This was described as "methyl mercury compounds produced in the acetaldehyde acetic facilities of Chisso at Minamata."

Little by little, the cause of Minamata disease had come to be recognized officially, but the entire process took 12 years after human symptoms initially appeared. During this period, government agencies and leaders delayed official recognition and afflicted persons went uncompensated. Governmental controls and regulations on industrial wastes were sidestepped without any serious effort to come to grips with the problem.

Efforts to halt the dumping of contaminated wastes

In early 1957, the Minamata Fishermen's Cooperative called on Chisso to cease dumping mercury-contaminated wastes into the bay. The request contained two parts: (a) that "the release of polluted water into the sea be stopped" and (b) that "adequate waste water treatment facilities be installed and that evidence identifying the harmless nature of waste water after treatment be submitted." Had these proposals been accepted, the source of pollution would have been eliminated and further spread of the disease retarded. But Chisso flatly rejected the Cooperative's request and failed to accelerate the installation of improved waste water treatment facilities. By now, local residents were choosing to avoid seafood from the bay and the number of new cases of poisoning was declining. The corporation was thus able to argue that matters were under control and the fishermen's pleas could safely be ignored.

A new round of anxiety about the disease began in 1958 when additional cases were verified in villages at the southern end of Minamata. Chisso responded by re-routing the discharge of effluents from the bay to the lower reaches of the Minamata River. Soon thereafter, more new cases of the disease developed in the estuary. At this point, most observers would have concluded that the disease agents were closely connected with the effluents, but Chisso did not. From start to finish they offered stopgap measures and failed to take any definitive steps against pollution by the industrial wastes.

The following year (1959), new cases of disease sprang up in coastal regions all along the Shiranui Sea. Fishermen staged a large-scale protest against Chisso and demanded that the corporation "discontinue the release of effluents until facilities for treatment and purification are completed." Sentiment in the prefectural Assembly began shifting to the side of the fishermen and the Governor called for a special Assembly session to resolve the matter. However, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) stepped in to declare that "the problem of industrial waste had been resolved." Chisso was to be allowed to continue operations if it ceased dumping wastes into the Minamata River and quickly completed water treatment facilities.

To the untutored eye, Chisso might have appeared to have taken some kind of countermeasures against pollution. By the end of 1959 they had completed two waste treatment facilities, neither of which was effective in removing organic mercury compounds dissolved in water. Aware of these shortcomings, the corporation never channelled any waste water from the acetaldehyde process into them. Yet, at the formal opening ceremonies, the President of Chisso made the gesture of drinking a cup of water that had supposedly undergone treatment! It had not, but the prefectural Governor and the other guests believed the ruse. In fact, the fishermen, the residents of Minamata, and onlookers everywhere were brainwashed by an effective but misleading public relations campaign.

Chisso thereafter dumped waste water from the acetaldehyde process into a collection pool and recirculated it for reuse, without taking all the steps necessary to stop the flow of methyl mercury. This did not occur until 1968, when the acetaldehyde process was changed. Gradually, methyl mercury was eliminated as a by-product. But a vast amount of mercury-tainted sediment had already been discharged into the sea, where it continued to contaminate fish and shellfish.4

Problems associated with relief and reparations


Relief
Reparations
Measures to aid the fisheries


Relief

After the prompt admission of patients to hospitals at the initial stages of the Minamata disaster, there were few new developments in the arena of relief. Medical costs were privately borne at first, until patients began to be admitted to the Minamata Municipal Hospital in 1958. State relief for bedridden victims did not arrive for a period of five years. A special wing of the Municipal Hospital was opened in July 1959 to provide treatment for Minamata disease victims, but there were insufficient beds and at least 19 verified cases were cared for at home. Infants with the congenital form of Minamata disease endured lengthy delays before they were verified as official cases, because the medical diagnosis of these cases was slow. Many affected infants received no assistance.

Changes in methods of investigating Minamata disease and standards for treatment also had repercussions for victims. In the beginning, widespread epidemiological testing was carried out to identify causes of the disease. But once it was understood that heavy metal contamination of food supplies was involved, broad screening procedures halted and individual cases were turned over to local physicians. By this means, acute cases who manifested chronic symptoms became the standard for diagnosis and many persons with less advanced forms of the disease were left unattended.

Over the years since 1956, the government has gradually implemented more comprehensive measures for addressing Minamata disease. For example, medical treatment costs and a monthly allowance for nursing are provided to patients who manifest disease symptoms but have yet to be verified officially as victims. There is also a new medical examination and management programme that is aimed at improving health and sanitation among populations at risk. It remains to be seen whether the programme will be effective in addressing the needs of Minamata disease victims. Already, it is clear that there is bureaucratic pressure to reduce the number of persons who apply for certification as victims, so the programme may serve to deter people who should be receiving treatment.

Reparations

Efforts by victims to secure reparations from Chisso and the government continued throughout the four decades after 1956 but little was achieved. The mimaikin contract has already been noted as an example of the corporation's efforts to appear magnanimous without either admitting responsibility or incurring substantial costs.5 Because of being ostracized by the community, victims found themselves in a weak position to contest such attempted resolutions of their plight. Had it not been for the timely occurrence of the "second Minamata disease" in Niigata, the policy of "stonewalling" might have worked for Chisso. But it was not until 1973 that a workable system of reparations by the company was agreed to - 17 years after the disease was officially recognized.

Reparations are tied directly to the disease certification process, because only persons who have been officially certified can qualify for assistance. This leaves many sufferers outside the aid system. They include victims who are refused certification, those still being processed, and those who have yet to apply. Standards for certification are very strict and are closely tied to the appearance of Hunter and Russell's syndrome.6 By 1970, no more than 121 persons had been certified as victims. Since then, victims who were refused certification have made appeals against the screening methods. However, despite an apparent brief easing of standards, the new examination system which was established in 1977 - has resulted in a near-total refusal of certification to applicants.

Frustrated first by Chisso and then by official procedures for determining who may be counted as a victim, aggrieved citizens redoubled their efforts to claim reparations from both the company and the government. The number of plaintiffs in all regional courts eventually exceeded 2,000 persons. Soon, the courts desired to pass their own judgement on Minamata disease, and a new category of victims came into being - those that were certified by court order rather than medical evidence.

Part of the reason that Chisso and the government dragged their feet in paying reparations was that the financial burdens of the disease were mounting up to impressive proportions. The combined total of reparations to victims and the sludge-removal project in Minamata Bay ate into corporate funds and made it difficult for Chisso to continue operating. The prospect of industrial closings and the advent of widespread public support for pollution prevention in Japan spurred the government to come to the company's aid. Bonds were issued by the Kumamoto prefectural government, and the capital thereby raised was lent to Chisso to subsidize reparations. It was further agreed that Chisso would have to repay the prefecture 150 billion by the end of 1992, with further sums to follow as additional reparations were settled.

Measures to aid the fisheries

The fishermen's place of work was directly contaminated by mercury, but at first - apart from increasing the number of artificial reefs and expanding areas open to fishing - nothing was done to help them. These measures proved ineffective and the local fishing industry faced imminent ruin. Kumamoto Prefecture then decided to encourage fishermen to convert their operations from taking local inshore finfish to deep-sea fishing for squid and cuttlefish. But the labour force was unfamiliar with the larger vessels, as well as the equipment necessary, and most fishermen did not want to spend a long time on the open sea. As a result, this effort foundered. Several other ideas for rescuing the fishing industry were tried without success, but the level of activity was sufficient to convince the national government and the Japanese parliament (Diet) that the issue was being attended to. Most of the draft ideas were, in fact, abandoned without being implemented.

The subsequent history of the fishermen's attempts to gain reparations is similar to that of the Minamata disease victims. Initially, Chisso refused to respond to their appeals (1958). After mercury pollution was identified as the disease's cause, a new round of appeals for aid was submitted by the fishermen (July 1959). In the end, the mayor's office negotiated a token payment from Chisso that was not to be considered reparation for problems related to Minamata disease. As more and more cases of disease appeared, relations between the fishermen and the corporation deteriorated to the point where the fishermen stormed Chisso's Minamata plant, thereby propelling the dispute into a major political problem. But once again the outcome was payment of limited reparations by the company, this time brokered by the Governor of Kumamoto Prefecture.

How the local community suppressed the victims

The vitality of the local community in Minamata was slowly sapped by repeated failures to arrive at a solution to the problems of Minamata disease. However, it was also the local citizens who helped to drag out the process of settlement. Chisso held the reins of political power in Minamata but, in disputes with people affected by Mina mate disease, they could count on local residents to come to their aid. Workers from Chisso and affiliated companies turned their backs on the victims because they believed that their own livelihoods were threatened by any assault on the corporation. With a majority of the citizens behind them, Chisso commanded public officials and other local influentials. As a longestablished local institution, the company took advantage of their ties geographical, economic, and familial to the area and were able to suppress victims' appeals. Though their claims for reparations were relatively modest, protesters were effectively penned into an isolated group. For example, when fishermen protested to Chisso in 1959, the Mayor and Chairman of Minamata City Council headed a delegation of 28 groups that lobbied the Governor against stopping industrial discharges from Chisso because that action "signed certain death for the local community." They followed this up with a request for the prefecture to provide "ample defense against acts of violence" and implored the Ministry of Health and Welfare to ignore arguments that might implicate Chisso as a cause of the disaster.

Although victims' protests grew throughout the 1960s into a fully fledged social movement - complete with support from external interest groups Chisso's appeal to the existence of a "shared destiny" between the citizens and the company was a formidable obstacle. Even as late as 1968, when official recognition of the causes of Minamata disease had been secured, Chisso was able to bring together more than 2,500 persons representing 53 local groups in support of a concerted effort to rebuild the Chisso Minamata plant. At this time, the President of Chisso attempted to dampen the exultation of victims about the progress they were making in seeking commitments from the corporation by making a statement that "plant reconstruction depended on whether cooperation could be won from labor unions and the local community."

Again, in 1971, when local groups were battling in direct negotiations for reparation, the Mayor of Minamata pronounced that he "would defend Chisso even in the eyes of national consensus." (He later explained that he was forced to make this statement "for the sake of creating and maintaining jobs for the people.") Yet again, in 1975, Minamata City Council officially requested both the state and the prefecture to mitigate Chisso's burden of work for the removal of contaminated sludge from Minamata Bay. And once more, in 1977, an organization created and funded by the City Council campaigned to collect signatures in support of reconstruction of the Chisso plant.

In short, the carefully cultivated myth of "shared destiny" between city and company had taken deep root in the community. Opponents of "mutuality" were discriminated against and suppressed. The victims - not the disease - were now seen as the threat. They also became scapegoats for the community's problems. In this curious and troubling inversion of reality, Minamata disease itself became a taboo subject.

If something truly effective is to be done about the lingering impact of Minamata disease, a start must be made on fashioning a new concept of the community. The conception of "shared destiny" that served the interests of Chisso and many of its workers in earlier decades must be dismantled. It will be necessary to free the residents of Minamata from dependence on a single corporation and to diversify the economic foundations of the community. So far, existing approaches have not produced a solution to the ills that still blight the lives and landscape in Minamata. This alternative remains to be tried.

Conclusions

The victims of Minamata disease offer the following lessons to the world:

1. Industrial pollution causes disease, destroys ecosystems, and produces other types of irreparable damage. This means that complete recovery from industrial pollution is impossible. Accordingly, waste material that is produced as a result of industrial operations must not be dumped into any environmental sink until it is harmless.

2. The world's chemical industry is currently dumping newly created substances whose effects are not fully understood. Because it takes considerable time before the presence and effects of toxic substances can be identified, it is necessary to prevent the spread of pollution at the source.

3. Industrial degradation of the environment produces effects that can spread rapidly. It is, therefore, necessary to monitor the effect of pollutants and measure the damage, otherwise relief of victims and restoration of the environment will be delayed.

4. When a local community has no control over business operations that affect its environment, the possibility exists that the environment will be destroyed.

5. Any business that destroys the environment must bear the responsibility of making reparations to the victims and making good the environmental destruction.

Editor's postscript

Students of natural disasters have observed that communities typically move through characteristic stages of recovery after a major catastrophe. The last of these is a period marked by symbolic construction projects and other initiatives that memorialize the event and attest to the onset of a "new beginning." On a recent trip to Minamata (November 1992), participants in the Second Minamata International Conference (itself intended to be a therapeutic response to the community's problems) were taken on a tour of several such facilities. These included a waterfront park on reclaimed land that covered the site of Chisso's sludge-dumping operations; an ornamental bamboo garden and display centre that is intended both to demonstrate the aesthetic possibilities of landfills and to showcase a valuable but neglected bamboo handicrafts industry; and the newly opened Minamata Disease Data Hall, which contains officially selected photographs and other displays of information about the disease and its consequences.

To some extent, the existence of these projects reflects growing community willingness to reject Minamata's pariah status among Japanese cities and to fashion a new collective self-image and a new economic base in the manner suggested by Maruyama. However, it will probably be a long time before Minamata completes the intended transition from troubled industrial city to showplace centre of disaster tourism, traditional handicrafts, and ecodevelopment. The psychological and political gap that separates victims and non-victims is wide. Many victims are deeply suspicious of the motives of government and industry leaders who are promoting the community's new image. The existence of a privately supported "Disease Victims Museum," which contests official versions of local history, is only one indicator of the differences. Other signs of disunity emerged in a flurry of critical comments about the recovery process that were delivered by local citizens in the international conference audience. Such public displays of discord are unusual at conferences in Japan. Though invited by the conference organizers, representatives of the Chisso Corporation were notably absent.

It is probably too early to tell whether these recent developments signal the beginning of the end of Minamata's long struggle with the consequences of its namesake disease. What seems amply clear is that the recovery process has entered a new stage. At the very least, denial and foot-dragging have been replaced by recognition and willingness to make a start on the process of community regeneration. The need to face up to the realities of industrial hazard as soon as possible and to begin a broad search for appropriate solutions is one of the indispensable lessons of Minamata.

Chronology

1908

  • Chisso builds plant in Minamata.
  • 1926

  • Chisso pays first retributions for damage incurred by local fisheries because of industrial pollution.
  • 1932

  • Operations initiated at Chisso's acetaldehyde-processing plant where mercury is used as a catalyst.
  • 1956

  • Minamata disease publicly recognized. Cause of disease identified as heavy metal poisoning via the ingestion of fish and shellfish. Chisso's industrial effluents suspected as source of contamination.
  • 1957

  • Minamata Fishermen's Cooperative calls for end to dumping of industrial wastes in local waters and treatment of wastes before discharge.
  • 1958

  • Chisso re-routes waste water produced in the acetaldehyde plant from Minamata Bay to a point near the Minamata River estuary. Pollution spreads across a large part of the Shiranui Sea.
  • 1959

  • Organic mercury is identified as the substance that causes the disease. Fisherman adopt violent tactics in effort to stop dumping of industrial waste and to support demands for reparations. Symptoms of Minamata disease develop in a laboratory cat that was directly administered effluent from Chisso's plant in tests conducted at Chisso's research laboratory, but no official announcement is made. Mimaikin contract (simple expression of sympathy with little financial reimbursement) is concluded between Chisso and families of victims. (Contract later annulled in the First Lawsuit against Chisso, 1969-1973.)
  • 1965

  • Cases of organic mercury poisoning in humans living in Niigata Prefecture are officially recognized in the so-called second Minamata disease.
  • 1968

  • Operations at Chisso's acetaldehyde-processing plant cease. The government releases an official judgement that "Chisso (is) the cause."
  • 1969

  • Victims and families bring civil action against Chisso seeking compensation. This becomes known as the First Lawsuit against Chisso.
  • 1973

  • First Lawsuit against Chisso is decided in favour of the plaintiffs. An agreement on reparations is concluded between the victims and Chisso, constituting what was to become the retribution system that has continued to operate ever since.
  • 1977

  • Removal of sludge from Minamata Bay begins. Project completed in 1990.
  • 1980

  • Victims and families bring civil action against Chisso, the national government, and the Kumamoto prefectural government. This becomes known as the Third Lawsuit.
  • 1987

  • The Third Lawsuit is decided in favour of the plaintiffs. It cites the national government and Kumamoto prefectural government as negligent about their responsibilities for protecting the public. The defendants (Chisso, Kumamoto prefectural government, national government) appeal against the decision.
  • 1987

  • The former President of Chisso and the Plant Manager are found guilty of professional negligence leading to involuntary manslaughter.
  • 1992

  • The Environmental Agency of Japan initiates a comprehensive programme for the relief of Minamata disease.

  • Contents - Previous - Next