Making Up for Minamata

Making Up for Minamata

Japanese literary scholar Keiko Kanai reviews a half-century of social activism on the issue of compensation for the people of Minamata, Japan, a bayside town poisoned by industrial waste in 1955.

Cats started to paw the air, shake uncontrollably, and even commit suicide by jumping into the sea. This was the first thing that the people of Minamata, Japan, observed in 1955—before their neighbors began acting erratically as well.

The people's walking would be skewed, tremors would seize them, their vision and hearing would fade, and they would suffer from numbness. Some also died.

These were the symptoms of what later came to be known as Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder caused my mercury poisoning from ingesting fish and shellfish with high mercury concentrations. The disease also caused severe birth defects, ranging from malformed limbs to complete paralysis. Soon it became evident that the sea life around Minamata was being poisoned by the waste runoff from a local plastics plant owned by Japan's Chisso Corp.

"What then is adequate compensation for broken bodies, damaged minds, and taken lives?" asked Keiko Kanai of Tokyo's Waseda University at a Nov. 21 colloquium on Minamata Disease sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies.

The people who contracted what was initially dubbed the Strange Disease, and erroneously believed to be contagious, were stigmatized and shunned by the rest of their society. Eventually these outcasts confronted the perpetrator of the crimes against them, Chisso.

'I Burn Myself in Offering'

As a scholar of Japanese literature, Professor Kanai investigates writer Ishimure Michiko's Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow for its role in inspiring social activism and awareness of this environmental disaster years after it began.

Ishimure wanted to give the afflicted a voice and to stop the polluting. Chisso had continued to pollute even after runoff from the plant was established as the likely cause of the poisoning.

"I burn myself in offering" to light the signal fire for social activism, Ishimure wrote. And not in vain, according to Kanai: many in the social movement cited Paradise as seminal in motivating them to fight.

Published in three installments, the first in 1969, and finally compiled into one volume in 2004, Paradise is a fictional work that chronicles the development of the Minamata issue over 50 years. Because it is fiction, however, some critics say that the book is not a reliable source to draw on. However, Kanai disputes these claims, citing several people active in the movement as having said the characters in Paradise are more real to them than the actual victims.

The Long Fight

Ishimure's characters experienced the various stages of the disaster in parallel to the real people they were based on, from the initial suffering to the long fight for recognition, compensation, and atonement.

Minamata's fishermen lost their way of life, unable to sell poisoned fish, if they were lucky enough to have escaped severe physical debilitation from the disease. Kanai explained that, with medical bills and sick family members to take care of, some victims needed aid immediately.

They couldn't wait for a settlement that would dignify their condition with official acknowledgement. And so some in this desperate situation settled with Chisso in 1959 for tiny monetary compensation and with no acknowledgement of guilt on the corporation's behalf.

Others fought on however, and in 1973 a district court declared the 1959 settlement not only invalid, but "contrary to public morals." The court granted larger monetary compensation—to be disbursed by the welfare ministry—but still left Chisso without blame. In post–World War II Japan, Kanai explained, the government was friendly to big industry as part of a program to modernize the economy.

Some victims, including more who couldn't afford to wait, accepted the agreement. Others brought new suits against the company and even the government for the latter's mishandling of the situation.

In a very public display in 1987 organized in part by Minamata activist Watanabe Eizo, protesters took the fight to Chisso's annual meeting in Osaka. Dressed in the white of religious pilgrims, holding up banners with "revenge" written on them, and chanting Buddhist mortuary hymns to appease the dead, protesters directly challenged the company board and shareholders. The media captured these images, etching them into the minds of the public.

In 1995 the courts finally leveled blame against Chisso and handed out more compensation but refused to accept many victims' claims, saying they were "not severe enough." In 2004 the Japanese Supreme Court extended fault to a negligent government.

But Kanai's question remains unanswered: "What constitutes atonement when people sacrifice lives for profit?"

Published: Tuesday, December 06, 2005