WALTER HAMILTON. Minamata Remembered

Aug 30, 2016


This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the methyl mercury poisoning in Japan that caused ‘Minamata Disease’. Shocking images of victims captured by the American photographer W. Eugene Smith (his Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath perhaps the best known) have served ever since as a warning to the world of the threat from industrial pollution.

Documents recently obtained by NHK television’s Close-Up Gendai current affairs program have revealed how politicians and bureaucrats colluded with the firm responsible for the pollution scandal, Chisso Corporation, to keep it afloat using public money while restricting compensation payments to victims.

Chisso is still in business today and highly profitable.

The papers of Chisso’s vice-president in the 1960s reveal how a secret deal was done with Japan’s Finance Ministry to rescue the firm and how the medical standard for certifying victims was rigged to put a cap on compensation costs.

Between 1932 and 1968, a Chisso chemical factory located on Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu manufactured acetaldehyde using a mercury catalyst. Untreated wastewater from the plant was discharged into the bay contaminating seafood consumed by local residents. In severe cases, victims of ‘Minamata Disease’ suffered impaired sight, hearing or balance as well as convulsions or paralysis, sometimes leading to death.

A doctor at a Chisso-affiliated hospital first described an ‘epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system’ in 1956. When researchers realised the probable cause, the company concealed their findings and, rather than stop production, diverted wastewater to another outlet, spreading the contamination to more people. The first payments of ‘consolation money’ were made to a small number of victims in 1959––even as Chisso increased production of acetaldehyde and continued polluting the waterways. It took the Japanese government twelve years to formally link the outbreak to mercury-contaminated wastewater.

Two company executives were later found guilty of causing death by ‘negligence in the conduct of business’. Their two-year prison sentences were suspended.

The documents reported by NHK show how a senior politician brokered the deal to use public funds to prevent the scandal forcing Chisso out of business. To hide the arrangement, Kumamoto Prefecture issued bonds to be purchased by the Finance Ministry with the money being channeled to the company to meet its compensation liabilities. Since the bailout of a private firm was likely to invite criticism, local assemblymen were used, unwittingly, to start a public campaign to demand government assistance.

A decade later, with no end in sight to the compensation claims, a bureaucrat involved in the scheme likened it to ‘pouring money into a basket’. The rights of victims and the responsibility of the company were secondary concerns as a means was now found to cap the liability. From 1978, claims was assessed according to a new medical standard: instead of having to show just one symptom of ‘Minamata Disease’, claimants now needed to exhibit multiple symptoms. The proportion of successful claims dropped sharply. According to the NHK report, 20,000 people were thus denied compensation––almost ten times the number officially recognised as victims. Most successful claimants have since died.

The Minamata disaster led to the introduction of various anti-pollution measures in Japan. As a result of a cleanup program of dredging and land reclamation, fish caught in Minamata Bay were deemed fit to eat by the mid-1990s. A Minamata Disease Museum built in the town is a permanent reminder of the tragedy.

Families, however, are still living with the consequences: severely disabled victims growing old in the care of still older parents and siblings (in some cases themselves afflicted with symptoms). Families who received larger amounts of compensation have also had to cope with criticism from those in the community more concerned with preserving their jobs at the Chisso factory.

Tomoko Uemura, the subject of Eugene Smith’s groundbreaking photograph, died in 1977 at the age of 21. Her family later withdrew permission for the photograph to be republished. Partly, it was so her spirit could rest in peace, but partly it was because the image had led to false rumours that they were profiting from the image. The victims had become victims all over again.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC in the 1980s and 1990s.








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