Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Minamata, Japan, 1950s

Chisso’s dominance of the economy transformed Minamata into a one-company town and enabled the company to dispose of its wastes with relative impunity.  Chisso could cheaply buy off the fishing interests when its chemicals polluted the bay.  Its economic dominance allowed it to get away with denying responsibility for those suffering from the poisoning, to pay a pittance to the early victims, and to continue to discharge the toxic wastes even after it knew that the wastes were causing the suffering.  Internally, the company suppressed Dr. Hosokawa’s findings on the cause of the disease.  Externally, it aligned itself with commercial interests within the government that turned a blind eye to the company’s culpability and to the victims’ suffering.  Only after Chisso stopped production of acetaldehyde, the source of the mercury waste, did the government acknowledge that the company was responsible for the onset of Minamata Disease.

Dominance, denials, and suppression perpetuated the uncertainty as to the cause of Minamata disease.  The uncertainty exacerbated the isolation of the victims. Once strong adults were reduced to skeletons, subject to violent convulsions; children found themselves incapable of controlling their bodies.   Since no one dared to blame the company in the early days of the outbreak of the disease, and since the disease was spreading within close communities and even within families, the victims were blamed – spat upon, treated as lepers, accused of seeking undue compensation and of threatening the town’s chief employer and economic base.  Many of the victims blamed themselves and attempted to hide the symptoms.  Chisso’s manipulation of the uncertainty of the cause of the disease served to extend and deepen the suffering.

Under the circumstances, and given the importance within Japanese culture of preserving the cohesion of the community, it is remarkable that individual victims had the courage to fight the company, the government agencies, and their neighbors and community.  In the long run, the victims’ tenacity served them well as they formed various victim and support groups, organized sit-ins at Chisso facilities and demonstrations in Minamata and Tokyo, and initiated a lawsuit.  It is likely the tough independence of the fishing people and comfort from family members that allowed them to endure.  The struggle was certainly blessed by the moving writing of Michiko Ishimure and the compelling photographs of Shisei Kuwabara and W. Eugene and Aileen Smith.  National and even international attention also provided critical support that counterbalanced the antagonism closer to home.

By denying responsibility, suppressing the truth, deflecting attention onto other possible causes of the disease, with the aid of government authorities, Chisso managers maintained distance between the firm and the victims.  At times it appeared that Chisso treated the suffering of the victims as a commodity that could be bargained for and bought cheaply.  Even in the lawsuit, the company was insulated by lawyers appearing on its behalf.  Teruo Kawamoto instinctively knew this and he led the fight to force Chisso into face-to-face negotiations.  In the first phase, when Kawamoto and other victims met Chisso President Shimeda, the wall between Shimeda and the suffering of the victims was breached, and the emotional confrontation was too much for Shimeda  — he fainted and even considered recommending  that the company be turned over to the victims and their supporters.  But the entrenched economic interests of the company, assisted by the lack of any pressure from governmental enforcement,  quickly reconstructed the barriers.  After the trial, Kawamoto again insisted on face-to-face meetings.  Again the reality of the suffering of the victims, intensified by the threat of one to slash his wrists, was too much for Shimeda and the company to hide from any longer.  The company finally acknowledged its responsibility.

Yet the suffering continues into this century and victims still struggle to force the government to acknowledge its responsibility and to look past the symptoms of Minamata Disease to see the real faces and souls of those who are suffering.


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