Mercury’s Message, 50 Years On

The worst case of chronic industrial pollution in modern times began half a century ago in the small town of Minamata, Japan. The fact that the disease it caused continues today — Japanese marked its 50th anniversary May 1 — means that it was not an accident, but deliberate.

We confront the idea, still hard for some to accept, that a society which encourages unchecked corporate manufacturing in the quest for untrammeled profits, will likely convert these into a grave public crime. It is probably happening again, right now in China. It is certainly happening in the United States, as the glance at the travails, and profits of the tobacco and pharmaceutical companies attests. Many therefore hoped Minamata would serve as a warning.

That is not quite the prevailing atmosphere in Japan as today’s anniversary passes by. Certainly there have been protest marches and solemn parades with speeches. Horribly harmed or bereaved people have told their stories. Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi apologised — decades late (again) — but did not attend any ceremony

But the real lesson was not on display, certainly not as learned by a Japanese journalist, Nobuo Miyazawa, who has followed Minamata for years. His verdict, hardly the quotation of the day, was: “Minamata is a disease that was willfully inflicted.” He decided this because everyone associated with it, except victims, “either made excuses or avoided what they needed to do.”

The Chisso corporation, founded in 1906, was the culprit that poisoned thousands with organic mercury discharged for decades into Minamata Bay. It knew of the potential dangers, having hired the finest industrial scientists of the time from Tokyo University.

The local authority in Minamata, on the coast of Kyushu, the southern island, knew it had a calamity, yet obfuscated and delayed. The government and various ministries avoided and evaded the implications, sometimes intervening to make things worse, such as terminating research funds.

Journalists were slow to investigate and then were not tough enough. A photographer did take a famously heartbreaking portrait of a mother bathing her afflicted child in a picture evocative of the Pieta — and was beaten by Chisso thugs. But he was a visiting American, the late Eugene Smith.

Even doctors found it difficult to be honest; one was driven to kill himself. Perhaps worst of all: those not afflicted blamed the ill and their protests as threatening the economy in a town where Chisso was the only large employer. Others believed Minamata disease was contagious, and subjected victims to ostracism. (Where was public education?)

May 1, 1956, was the day a town official received a formal report on a strange malady afflicting four local people. Within a short time it was discovered that 17 in the area had died. But many townsfolk already suspected something terrible.

Minamata was where the cats committed suicide. Driven wild by the mercury poisoning, they were hurling themselves into the bay. Before that, local folk had been seen gibbering in the street, apparently going mad. They all had one thing in common. They ate a lot of fish — and for months local fishermen had complained about damage to their catch from dumped sludge.

Chisso, originally a fertilizer company (it means “nitrogen”), became Japan’s first manufacturer of PVC in 1941. In its process for this plastic an organic mercury compound was employed in huge quantities. Dumped into the water, the compound entered fish and then people. It attacks the central nervous system, causing numbness, blindness, tremors, ataxia (erratic movement), extreme stabbing pains, unconscious spells, severe convulsions, coma, and death. Soon it was found to harm children in the womb who were born dead or with shocking deformities.

A medical research team at nearby Kumamoto University was alerted but two years later had found no definitive cause. It was hindered because although mercury was suspect, Chisso kept its use secret, while blocking and attacking the research.

In 1959 the team published an interim report blaming mercury, but by then local fishermen were going bankrupt as more people became ill. That November, when Chisso resisted compensation payments to fishermen, they rioted and destroyed company equipment. The Tokyo media awoke to the dire events in faraway Kyushu.

As the years passed, Chisso continued to obstruct and resist, only abandoning the mercury process in 1968. The authorities still declined to deal with the truth about Minamata disease. It was even suggested that it had run its course, but its ravages continued. People fell ill or their conditions worsened into death.

To chart fully the tortuous journey of Minamata and its sufferers would occupy a book; indeed, several have been written. Not until 1968 did the Ministry of Health officially recognize the disease and its cause.

Yet still, despite court cases, protest demonstrations, and political actions such as people living in tents at Chisso’s Tokyo headquarters, obtaining proper redress remained impossible. Not until 1977 were government-accepted standards established to define 2,995 sufferers and these remain controversial today. At least 1,784 have died so far (although all statistics are disputed).

In 1988 the Supreme Court in Tokyo overturned the appeal against a 1979 guilty verdict on Chisso executives for corporate malfeasance. The company claims to have paid out $1.3 billion over the years, but new lawsuits still go on.

Only in 2004 did the Supreme Court uphold a case brought by 45 plaintiffs. Even that remains disputed, with claimants accusing the government, the only organization finally deemed capable of grappling with Minamata’s devastation, of failing to honor its obligations.
Chisso was the perfect firm to present the world with a new deadly disease, yet it remains in business despite its appalling record. The founder once described its workers as “cows and horses”. He did not have to spell it out: They were beasts of burden, there to be used.

Japanese people are still paying for the corporation’s crimes. Chisso meanwhile boasts of its “proud history” and present role as “leader of Japan’s chemical industry.” Its motto: “The Strength to Open a Window Into the Future.” And close the door on the past.

CHRISTOPHER REED is a British freelance journalist in Japan. His email is