Minamata, Japan, 1950s

Fishing was always a critical resource in Minamata. What the fishermen did not sell, they and their families and neighbors ate. In the early 1950s, mullet, lobster, and shad began to disappear from the once-fertile fishing grounds. Dead fish were found floating on the sea; birds dropped dead from the sky. The local fishermen had to borrow money to eat and to buy nylon nets in order to capture what few fish were left. Nets were often lifted out of the sea bearing only a heavy sludge from a local [Chisso] chemical company’s wastewater. Soon thereafter the village’s cats began to dance crazily, bashing themselves against walls, jumping into the sea and drowning.

In July 1954, Dr. Hajime Hosokawa, director of the hospital at the Chisso plant, saw a patient who exhibited difficulty in walking and talking, wild mood swings, and violent convulsions. The patient died within a month. Another patient in 1955 and four more in 1956 presented similar symptoms. They could hardly walk, could barely speak a coherent word, and lost their sight and hearing. They became emotionally volatile. Their bodies were racked with convulsions. Once strong, independent fishermen were reduced to infants. Some howled like dogs.

By the mid-1950s, Dr. Hosokawa knew that the dancing cat disease, as it had become known, was more than a mystery—it was spreading. Most disturbing in his findings, newborns were exhibiting symptoms, which indicated the presence of a congenital form of the disease.

The affliction became known as Minamata Disease, a deadly form of mercury poisoning caused by a chemical company that discharged the mercury into the bay, knowing that it was causing the dreadful consequences.  The victims and their supporters have engaged in a 50 year struggle against the economically powerful chemical company and the regional and national government.  The victims sought recognition for their suffering and an apology from those responsible.  This struggle and the human costs were documented by a local woman, Michiko Ishimure, who became a well-known writer and by the American photographer W. Eugene Smith and his wife, Aileen Mioko Smith.

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