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Friday, Dec. 30, 2011

Minamata course passing down lessons on many levels

University's lectures still shedding light on mercury-poisoning disease


MINAMATA, Kumamoto Pref. — A private college in Kumamoto Prefecture has contributed to passing down the lessons learned from Minamata disease to future generations using a unique curriculum.

News photo
Exchange of ideas: Masami Ogata, who has Minamata disease, is seen at his "kokeshi" doll studio in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, on Dec. 16. KYODO PHOTOS

Now in its 10th year, the Minamata Studies course at Kumamoto Gakuen University gives students an opportunity to listen to people with direct knowledge of the mercury-poisoning disease convey their knowledge of the events in its namesake city and describe how people have struggled to deal with it.

Students in the most recent semester heard various lecturers, including a man with Minamata disease, an elementary school teacher who focuses on the issue in the classroom, and a senior administrative official.

One of the latest lecturers was Yonosuke Matsuoka, a former NHK director who worked at the public broadcaster's Kumamoto branch in the 1960s and was an active member of a support group for victims of the disease.

"I knew nothing about the Minamata issue before working in Kumamoto," Matsuoka, 76, told the students. "Seeing the difficulties the patients and their families faced, I gradually focused on supporting them as an individual, rather than producing TV programs about them as a journalist."

He spoke vividly of how the victims battled in court for damages against the government as well as Chisso Corp., the chemical maker that caused Minamata disease by dumping mercury-laced wastewater into the sea off the small coastal city, and how they negotiated with top-ranking officials of the company to seek compensation.

Lecturers in the past 10 years have included doctors, a former mayor of Minamata and lawyers involved in the lawsuits.

Attending the series of lectures this semester, Nozomi Kitamura, a senior from Fukuoka Prefecture, said she has come to understand that issues surrounding the disease are still unresolved 55 years after it was officially recognized in 1956.

"I didn't have the opportunity to learn about Minamata disease before graduating from high school," she said. "But the lecturers told us they are still involved — for example, by still holding negotiations with authorities" to seek better treatment for victims.

"There are some classmates from Minamata, but I have never talked about the issue with them," said Rie Inoue, another student in the course. "It was shocking for me to hear from a sibling of a patient, who told this course with tears that she had once attempted to kill her sister because of the burdens of caring for her, and she regrets it now."

Masanori Hanada, director of the Open Research Center for Minamata Studies at the university, said the school "aims to offer an interdisciplinary course by providing the students with various views on the issue without being shackled by the framework of (traditional) academia."

While promoting research tieups with a Taiwanese university and a conservation group in Thailand, the center has also given back to the people of Minamata by regularly holding open lectures there, Hanada said.

"We also take around 100 first-year students to Minamata every year to show them the present situation of the city," he said. "I believe it has also somehow contributed to Minamata."

In addition to the students, some local people attend the lectures without registration.

"I can't say so out loud, but we are accepting those who are interested in the Minamata disease issues," Hanada said with a laugh.

Giving a lecture at the university, meanwhile, was a precious opportunity for Masami Ogata, 53, who talked to the students in early December about how he has faced hardships as a Minamata disease patient.

"At first, the students seemed to be just attending the lecture as a matter of routine, but I was aware that they gradually focused on what I was talking about," Ogata said. "I could feel that there are people who want to learn about the Minamata disease issue, that I have to tell my story more and more, and that I am needed. I'm glad that I could talk there."

Ogata, a woodworker in Minamata, was certified as a patient in 2007 after his applications for official recognition had been rejected several times since 1996.

The Environment Ministry says 2,972 people had been recognized as patients as of the end of September and that 2,252 of them have died.

News photo
Former NHK director Yonosuke Matsuoka gives a lecture at Kumamoto Gakuin University on Dec. 15.

Minamata disease affected coastal residents not only in Kumamoto Prefecture but in Kagoshima as well. A similar disease was later confirmed in Niigata Prefecture and traced to wastewater from a Showa Denko K.K. plant. The Supreme Court in 2004 held the central government and Kumamoto Prefecture responsible for the spread of Minamata disease.

Believing that telling his story is his duty as a victim, Ogata has also shared his experiences several times a month with visitors to the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum.

"I hope the problems facing the Minamata disease sufferers will be solved during my lifetime, and I think sharing my own experiences with people, including students, should be of help," he said.

Looking into the future of the Minamata Studies course, Hanada, the university official, said the school will continue to invite victims as direct witnesses and hear what they have to say.

Some who have talked to the students have already passed away, he said.

Hanada also said the research center is trying to convey the experiences of Minamata to Fukushima Prefecture as it tries to deal with the nuclear crisis.

It remains unknown how many people have been or will be affected by neurological illnesses resulting from radiation contamination. Many people could develop symptoms later with advanced age.

Regardless, the government intends to determine by 2013 who is entitled to receive benefits under its latest redress measures for noncertified Minamata disease patients.

As of the end of November, around 48,800 people had applied for redress since May 2010.

Having learned from Minamata, experts have stressed the need to list those affected by radiation so authorities can follow up on their health well into the future.

As a patient, Ogata said he had certain expectations for the course curriculum.

"I expect the researchers and students at the university to focus on specific issues, such as how to deal with daily inconveniences that each sufferer faces and how to make the society live with currently alienated victims, rather than pursuing academic studies," he said.

Chronology of key events related to Minamata disease

May 1956 — An unexplained encephalopathy, eventually known as Minamata disease, is detected in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.

May 1965 — The second case of Minamata disease is confirmed in Niigata Prefecture.

September 1968 — Minamata disease is officially designated as a pollution-triggered illness.

March 1973 — The Kumamoto District Court rules in favor of patients in a damages suit against Chisso Corp.

October 1995 — Groups of noncertified Minamata disease patients accept a government-initiated settlement proposal.

October 2004 — The Supreme Court recognizes the government's responsibility for spreading Minamata disease. Standards for certifying patients are eased, triggering damages suits from noncertified patients.

July 2009 — A relief act is enacted for noncertified patients.

April 2010 — The Cabinet adopts redress measures for noncertified patients, featuring ¥2.1 million lump sum payments and monthly medical allowances.

March 2011 — Chisso spins off business operations to secure compensation costs.

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