Minamata is a very small fishing and farming town in Kumamoto, on Kyushu island in southern Japan. A beautiful place, graced by a gem-like harbor and a rushing river, Minamata does not seem to be the scene of a tragedy. Today, most young Japanese people are unfamiliar with what happened here so many years ago. But, just like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Minamata is world-famous for a different kind of manmade catastrophe.
About fifty years ago, strange things began to happen in Minamata. At first, unable to understand what was happening to them, the local people were afraid to talk.
Some of the townspeople began experiencing delirium, blackouts, and numbness of their arms and legs. Soon, some of them became partially or completely blind while others experienced slurred speech. Others were thought to have become insane when, unable to control the movements of their appendages, they shouted at random. Those afflicted were rumored to be possessed by the devil when they could not control their facial muscles and their contorted expression made them look like “monsters.” Local doctors were dumb-founded by the epidemic outbreak.
The sinister symptoms began to afflict the animals of Minamata. Cats and dogs began to exhibit inexplicable behavior. Townspeople reported that cats were “committing suicide.” Some cats chased their tails for days on end until they dropped from exhaustion. Dogs disappeared and were found dead days later. Even more shocking, afflicted birds began falling from the skies.
In 1932 the small town of Minamata boasted only one large factory which was owned by a company called the “Chisso Corporation.” In Japanese the word “chisso” means nitrogen. The Chisso Corporation was in the fertilizer business.
For hundreds of years, the townspeople of Minamata had lived primitive lives as fishers and farmers. Minamatans were glad when, in 1901, the Chisso Corporation set up a plant. Employment became abundant. By 1932, the Chisso plant had become very large. Since the Chisso Corporation was not involved with munitions manufacturing, they were spared bombing during the war and confiscation by the allies after the end of World War Two. By 1950 Chisso had become one of the leading businesses in Japan. Hand-in-hand, the Japanese government worked with companies like the Chisso Corporation in order to provide much needed jobs to a post war Japan. Chisso became so successful that it expanded into other chemical manufacturing.
By 1953, the strange plague had directly affected almost one-half of all the people in the small town of Minamata. People who came down with this bizarre disease were treated like lepers. Because no one knew if the disease were contagious, society shunned the sufferers.
Minamata babies began to be born with grotesque deformities and massive brain damage. Minamata fishermen began to catch two and three headed fish. At this point the government and the Chisso Corporation became alarmed.
The Agricultural Ministry of Japan — financed by the Chisso Corporation — ordered research into the causes of the freakish sickness that was attacking the people and killing the wildlife.
In 1956, Dr. Hajime Hosokawa was assigned to study the case. Dr. Hosokawa was an honest man, and even though he was paid by and worked at the Chisso Corporation Hospital, he reported, “an unclarified disease of the central nervous system has broken out in Minamata.” Hosokawa’s report pointed to chemical dumping by Chisso. The Chisso Corporation didn’t like this news at all and “removed” Dr. Hosokawa. So as to not alarm the populace, Chisso and the Japanese government covered-up Dr. Hosokawa’s findings. Chisso continued with their business in Minamata Bay.
By 1958, the cover-up was well under-way while the disease gained momentum. At this time, the Chisso Corporation tried to hide the problems by moving their business to nearby Minamata River. But after a few months, people near the river began to experience the symptoms of the strange disease.
By now, people were beginning to panic. The government of Kumamoto decided that they had to act. But instead of forcing the Chisso Corporation to suspend operations, the Kumamoto government made it illegal for the Minamata fishermen to sell locally caught fish. You read right. The Kumamoto authorities did not make it illegal for people to catch and eat local fish, they made it illegal for the local fishermen to sell their catch on the open market. The new law caused the Minamata area economy to suffer anew. Since Minamatans no longer had the money to purchase foodstuffs, they were forced to eat more locally caught fish.
By 1968, the problem had grown to crisis proportions. The Chisso Corporation began acting like the mafia by forcing people to accept hush money in return for signing contracts that absolved the Chisso Corporation from liability for damages. The Minamatans were ignorant of the law. Their livelihood and their families were destroyed. What else could they do but accept Chisso’s “hush money” and keep their mouths shut.
In 1969, a voluntary general citizens’ group was formed to support the victims of the disease. The People’s Congress for the Minamata Disease, joined with a group of lawyers and, using the testimony of Dr. Hosokawa from his death-bed, sued the Japanese government and the Chisso Corporation for damages related to what the lawyers termed “Minamata Disease.” It will never be fully known how many people actually suffered from this disease — some estimates have the number in the tens of thousands — but as of today, only 3,000 people have been compensated.
Consider the babies that were born deformed or brain-damaged. Imagine the people who died or whose lives were ruined by an unknown disease. Minamata disease is one from which there is no possibility of recovery. It is a disease for which there is no cure. And today, that disease is known as Methyl Mercury poisoning.
For mankind there would be more cases to follow: Three Mile Island, Love Canal, Chernobyl, and Bhopal — to name a few. But people should not forget that the world’s very first large scale man-made environmental disaster was covered-up by the government which was elected to protect its citizens — a disaster called Minamata.
- This article edited by Elizabeth Gyllensvard
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.