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XIII. Minamata disease victims' movements and efforts at renewal

Up until the time of the first civil court decision in 1973, the movement involving the disease victims and their supporters was mainly oriented toward a protest against the Chisso Company, with the company trying to negotiate by means of a third-party system established through governmental intervention. As a result of these reverberating interactions and interrelationships, the disease victims' movement was divided, in response to company and administrative obstructionism, into smaller factions employing differing tactics that were broadly characterized by direct negotiation and court settlements. after the end of Japan's high-economic-growth period in 1974, systematic pollution policies created by various governmental organs produced more problems for the disease victims than the company ever did. This government-induced oppression of victims' movements, such as was seen in the attempted indictment of Kawamoto mentioned earlier, and in many other lawsuits and legal manoeuvrings, had the effect of heightening public debate but did not bring about a meaningful resolution of outstanding problems and contentions. The most salient problem for the victims' movement was the system established for designating official disease patients, for, given the legal circumstances of the times, lawyers came to take a leading role in determining which of the disease victims should give up their legal struggle for patient designation, and which should go on to a second- or even third-level court. In some of these court battles, the judicial system was able to achieve, at least for some of the victims, legal designation as verified Minamata disease patients, but for all the effort involved in this process, the results have been minuscule in every respect. The indictment brought against the company by the victims in 1960 found the company to be in error, but the court struggle continues to this day without any clear end in sight. Although, from the beginning, a great deal of the fault in relation to the continuation of the Minamata problem rests with government administrative error and ineptitude, as represented by the continued obstruction of justice and limiting of due process, there exists no effective means of designation and punishing governmental duplicity. The administrative organs of government were asked by the Minamata disease patients to provide thorough examinations and observations of disease victims in order to compile a complete epidemiological picture of the disease, but the fact remains that such work, even on the most fundamental level, has yet to begin. Within the context of the present political climate, there is very little hope of change in the Minamata situation. There are no records of the exact number of disease victims, nor is there any likelihood that primary policy orientations will change in such a manner as to respond more adequately to the plight of the many victims that probably exist.

However, even in these difficult circumstances, the disease victims have continued with their rehabilitation under their own auspices. Kawamoto once said: "Because there was no Minamata disease patients" movement, and because the said patients are weak, the truth about the Minamata disease is still unknown." Although the victims and the various supporters view the problem from varying perspectives, the words of Kawamoto are recognized by all as portraying the truth of the situation. It goes without saying that there have been efforts at disease-victim rehabilitation, but these have been sporadic and limited.

The results of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment have already been mentioned, but this conference provided the first instance of physically handicapped disease victims being sent abroad through the support of a coalition of supporting citizens' groups.

In 1975, as soon as it became known that the same kind of disease was being discovered among certain Canadian Indians, the Minamata disease victims invited the Indians to Minamata and Niigata. In 1976, some of the disease victims from Japan participated as delegates in the Habitat Conference in Vancouver, and visited Indian reservations in Ontario and Quebec. In 1982, delegates from Japan went to the Environment Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and spoke on problems and developments during the ten-year period since the last environment conference in Stockholm. At that time warnings were sounded in relation to the spread of environmental diseases in certain other Asian countries.

The Minamata Research Group, which was formed at the time of the first civil court struggle, was able to provide reports and survey results of high academic quality. They provided Kumamoto University with well-documented Minamata disease sources, and this work still continues. In this regard, the contribution of Seirinsha must be remembered.

Seirinsha was the creation of Noriaki Tsuchimoto, who led Japan in the production of documentary films on the Minamata disease and the supporters' movements. These films were shown in many places and this contributed greatly to spreading knowledge of the disease. His works have also been recognized internationally. In 1978, over a six-month period, the Seirinsha group took their movies to 133 locations in 65 villages within a radius of 30 km of Minamata City, in and around the Shiranui Sea area. In 1975, Tsuchimoto produced a three-part series on the Minamata disease from a medical perspective, the results being a compilation of the many differing aspects of the disease. The narrative was written in collaboration with the Minamata Disease Research Group using all available material, including that of Dr. Hosokawa and a number of other co-operating medical practitioners. In 1979, the medical textbook The Minamata Disease - 20 Years of Research and the Problem Today was compiled through parallel efforts. The book, which meets the highest international standards, was produced by the moviemakers and the people, not by government-sponsored academics.

Dr. Masazumi Harada and the group of medical doctors who participated in the Minamata Disease Research Group tried to understand the total picture through research centring on the patients themselves. It is a well-known fact that Minamata disease patients exhibit symptoms characterized by high blood pressure, diabetic-type responses, and liver ailments, all of which are complicated by Hunter-Russel-type responses. These factors have been identified from pathological investigations that have traced the distribution of mercury poisons in various organs of the human body.2

Long-term observations in real-life situations have shown that the absorption of even small amounts of mercury over an extended period result in undeniable dangers to human health. However, the combination of clinical symptoms characteristic of the Minamata disease is similar to that seen in the pathological processes of ageing, and as a result it is difficult to differentiate the Minamata disease from geriatric problems in cases where the degree of mercury poisoning is limited. Various treatments aimed at ameliorating the sustained degenerative effects of the Minamata disease have been tried. Certain rehabilitation exercises may be of some use in regaining lost motor functions, but there is no hope of recovery from the pathological processes brought on by mercury poisoning.

1976 saw the formation of an academic research group incorporating both the natural and social sciences; subsequently a report, Shiranui-kai sogo chosadan (General Research on the Shiranui Sea), was published.3 Several young people who were involved in disease-victim support movements now live in Minamata and continue their various activities. One of their projects is the building of the Soshisha (Mutual Concern) Centre with contributions sent from all over Japan. The centre functions to provide work for patients whose handicaps are not severe, as well as offering training activities for young people; to this end it gives one-year internships to young people from urban situations. This project is similar to programmes in India in which urban youths participate in rural community camps.

Akira Sunada, a professional actor, lives in Minamata with the patients, earning his livelihood from organic farming. At the same time he has continued his mission, and through the presentation of his unique but traditional plays has told the story of Minamata and the disease patients to a large and varied audience. Through these activities people are reminded that this problem is still very much with us, and that there is a need for continued financial and moral support. A network that provides sales outlets for the organic agricultural products has been established with the help of various consumer organizations. Treatment of patients with oriental medicine has been tried, and many other projects have been launched. All activities are sustained on a voluntary basis and are not supported by any established funding organizations a fact that gives the community a certain feeling of autonomy.

In front of the Minamata City railway station there is a clinic to serve the needs of the Minamata disease patients. This clinic was set up by the Japan Association of Democratic Medical Organizations to provide a broad range of medical services to disease victims. It has a great deal of meaning for this community which once revolved around the lordship of an industrial complex, and great strength is derived from the knowledge that adequate care is available at the hands of professionals. Attempts to renew the local community have just begun, but the problems of the Minamata disease are far from over.

XIV. Conclusion

Minamata disease came into being as a result of one chemical complex that was, at a certain point in time, positioned at the heart of a new and rapidly growing industry. Because of the company's pride in its own technological prowess, it was blinded to the dangers of the waste effluents that it allowed to enter the human environment. The industry and various governmental organizations understood pollution problems only in terms of economic viability, and these same sectors of society tried to evade and cover up these problems through an initially successful series of oppressive measures. However, the problem reared its ugly head again, and this time the company was forced into a situation in which it could no longer continue operations. The way in which these problems were dealt with is beyond the comprehension of the present age. When industry and government circles were faced with this crisis, instead of attempting to deal in a straightforward manner with the realities involved, they simply initiated a cover-up in order to maintain traditional social structures and relationships for the sake of profit. Because of this obstructionism and perfidy, the destruction of the environment was worsened to a such a degree that all attempts at a solution have failed. Within the context of this crisis, the Minamata disease victims themselves, their supporters, and citizens' movements have worked to arouse public opinion, and to encourage the struggle of all disease victims. The majority of victims endured their suffering in silence in the hope that someday people would forget their existence. Through the application of universal democratic social action, a small minority of disease victims, refusing to be beaten, brought about a new start for the many victims of the disease. Where there are no people's movements, no progress is made toward meaningful solutions and the complexities are finally forgotten. Through active citizens' movements, new methods are discovered and new ways opened up. Most Minamata-disease-related citizens' movements employed non-violent direct action. In this way, the disease victims, even though they were socially weak, did not lose the battle, but were able to turn their deeply shared mutual experiences into powerful weapons for the fight. When such movements aim at returning basic human rights to the people, and when the appeal is directed at the full humanity of all persons, success is assured and progress can be made on a firm basis of human support.

One issue that has not yet been fully dealt with is that of the potential contribution of the disease victims to a full assessment of the damage done to the human environment by methyl mercury poisoning. The magnitude of the problem is such that, on the basis of present knowledge, it cannot be left to experts in the environmental sciences alone. It is obvious that Japanese political circles, and the related administrative organs of government, are totally incapable of coming to terms with the multitude of problems centring around this massive pandemic. Thus the adequacy of the work ahead depends upon how positively the socially weak disease victims are allowed, and able, to participate in the much needed overview of the problem, and in the process of finding solutions. These experiences are ones that we should all learn from, as we look ahead to other potential environmental disasters brought about by human greed.


1. According to the Environmental Agency of the Japanese government, the number of Minamata disease victims as of December 1990 is 2,239, including 987 deaths. There are 2,903 people who are seeking official recognition as disease patients (White Paper on the Environment, 1991).

2. Hirotsugu shiraki, suigin osen no jitai [The Reality of Mercury Poisoning], Kogai kenkyuu, vol. 2, no. 3 (1973): 1.

3. Daikichi Irokawa, ea., "Minamata no keiji" [Minamata Revelation], Shiranui-kai sogo chosa hokoku, vols. I and II (Chikuma Shobo, Tokyo, 1983).


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