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Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Quiet heroism amid tragedy

Victims fight on as man-made malady finds no closure

Staff writer

OSAKA -- In her small but comfortable house not far from Osaka's Nagai Park, 71-year-old Miyoko Sakamoto is everybody's idea of a kindly grandmother.

News photo
Miyoko Sakamoto, who moved to Osaka from Minamata years ago to escape the stigma of having Minamata disease, gives an interview in her home.

But her warm smile and courteous manner belie a great tragedy. For Sakamoto is one of thousands of people with Minamata disease.

"I take medicine to ease the pain, but there is no cure. I don't have complete freedom of movement in my arms and legs, and am now almost blind in my right eye." she said. "I have to be careful not to exert myself too hard, or I'll collapse."

Sakamoto's life reflects the human toll of one of Japan's worst pollution disasters. Minamata disease is a tale of shocking criminal negligence on the part of the company directly responsible, complacent government bureaucracy, indifferent politicians and corrupt scientific experts who lied about its causes when it first appeared.

The tragedy awoke Japan and the world to the human and environmental costs of rampant industrialization in the postwar years.

But it is also a story of determined victims and their supporters, ordinary men and women who battled for decades against Chisso Corp. and the central government, finally forcing both to take responsibility.

May 1, 1956, not the start

On May 1, 1956 in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, four people suffering an unusual disease showed up at the hospital run by Chisso Corp., which at the time employed nearly 60 percent of the town's workforce.

The hospital's head, Hajime Hosokawa, had seen similar symptoms in a patient who died in 1954. But as early as 1946, locals were speaking of the "dancing cat" disease, a malady that caused cats to convulse wildly before they died.

Fearing an epidemic, Hosokawa notified local health officials of this strange new illness. It was the first official announcement of what would become known as Minamata disease.

And a horrible disease it was. A Kumamoto University report from summer 1956 described just how quick it could kill.

In one case documented by researchers, a 28-year-old woman began complaining of numbness of fingers and impaired hearing and speech. Three days later, the numbness spread to her mouth. One week later, she was barely able to walk.

Three weeks after her initial complaints, she was hospitalized with muscle spasms and was occasionally howling. Six weeks later, she was semicomatose and could no longer feed herself -- her face and mouth had become paralyzed. Her body temperature rose, her pupils dilated and she howled nonstop.

Seven weeks after her initial complaint of numbness, she was dead.

In January 1957, Kumamoto University researchers announced that effluent containing heavy metals being dumped by Chisso Corp. into Minamata Bay was responsible for the disease. Two years later, they issued a more specific conclusion citing organic mercury in the effluent.

Chisso Corp.'s Minamata plant used organic mercury for manufacturing acetaldehyde and vinyl chloride. Between 1932, when the plant went into operation, and 1968, when it switched to a different manufacturing process, Chisso dumped an estimated 27 tons of mercury-tainted waste into Minamata Bay.

There, it entered the food chain, contaminating shellfish at first, then larger fish, and, finally, humans.

Chisso's initial reaction to Kumamoto University's conclusions was to reject them. The company's allies in academia and industry rallied to its defense.

The head of an industrial organization claimed, falsely, that the disease was caused by explosives dumped into Minamata Bay after the war.

Between 1956 and 1959, at least 30 people died of mercury poisoning and more became sick.

After local fisherman staged a protest to demand that Chisso stop dumping mercury into the bay and clashed violently with police, a settlement was reached in December 1959 whereby Chisso offered to pay condolence money without admitting responsibility.

The victims, facing a hostile rural community where they are shunned for having Minamata disease and for challenging the town's main employer, accepted.

They received 30,000 yen for a child with the disease, 100,000 yen for an adult and 300,000 yen in the event of death. They also had to agree to never press Chisso for further redress.

Chisso kept on; Niigata hit

Six months after the agreement, Chisso resumed dumping mercury-tainted effluent into the bay.

The matter appeared to have been swept under the rug until 1965, when Niigata Prefecture suffered an outbreak of the disease.

The Niigata victims immediately filed a lawsuit against Showa Denko, the chemical company responsible, and emboldened the Minamata victims to take Chisso to court.

Twenty families in Kumamoto, representing 112 patients, filed suit against Chisso in the Kumamoto District Court. In 1973, the Kumamoto plaintiffs were victorious, and signed a compensation agreement with the polluter that gave each patient between 16 million yen and 18 million yen, plus medical expenses.

Six years later, Chisso's former president and Minamata factory manager were found guilty of negligent homicide and, after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal in 1988, were given suspended two-year sentences.

The 1973 decision did not end the issue because it did not address the question of what would happen to those who were suffering Minamata disease but were not officially recognized as victims and thus ineligible for compensation.

In 1977, the old Environment Agency, fearing a deluge of official victims under its old system, toughened the requirements for Minamata disease certification despite criticism from the scientific and medical communities that its criteria were not based on sound science.

The decision triggered another round of suits by unrecognized victims.

In December 1995, under a plan brokered by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, noncertified victims each got 2.6 million yen.

To be eligible, applicants had to show loss of feeling in all four limbs and agree to withdraw their lawsuits.

In addition, five separate groups of victims received 4.94 billion yen, and, although the government didn't formally admit responsibility, Murayama apologized for its role.

About 10,000 people eventually received compensation, but a small group of plaintiffs in the Kansai region fought on in the courts to hold the central government responsible.

In October 2004, the Supreme Court ruled the central and Kumamoto Prefectural governments were jointly responsible for the spread of Minamata disease.

"What the Supreme Court ruling did was to effectively nullify the Environment Agency's stringent 1977 guidelines for certification, resulting in more people being eligible to be certified as victims," said Toshiyuki Kawakami, leader of the Kansai plaintiffs. "But so far, the Environment Ministry has done nothing to relax its criteria."

As of March, nearly 19,000 people, including Kawakami, had applied for recognition. Over the past half-century, more than 900 people with Minamata Disease have died, and the government has only recognized about 3,000 people.

Unknown thousands continue to suffer, and symptoms of the disease have appeared in the children and grandchildren of people who ate Minamata Bay fish long ago.

"The dead cannot be brought back. On May 1, when the government holds a memorial service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first official report of Minamata disease, government officials will remember the dead. But they need to remember those who are alive and suffering," Sakamoto said.

"All pollution, be it Minamata disease or poisoning from asbestos, is the same. It effects families and children, and I don't want any other family, or children, to go through what the Minamata disease victims have gone through," she said.

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