Ben Hills

Like an Edo era woodblock, the strange three-masted fishing skiffs with their white sails bulging in the breeze are etched against the bottle green of the Shiranui Sea. The crew, husband-and-wife teams, tough as leather, lean over the side of their utase boats, hauling in nets with a harvest of prawns and ribbon fish.

The scene has not changed since the beginning of recorded time when the Yamato people first came to the shores of this beautiful, temperate sea where the north Pacific filters gently through the archipelago of the Amakusa group, “the islands of heaven- ly grass”. The Shiranui Sea has sustained a hundred generations with its bounty of fish, shells and seaweed. Or it did, until they built a factory in a pretty fishing village called Minamata, a factory that would poison the sea and the people who depended on it for their livelihood. In Japan, they call what happened here kogai-gen, “the beginning of pollution”. Elsewhere, Minamata is known not as a place but as a disease, insidious chemical warfare on the central nervous system that leads to convulsions, paralysis, deformity and death.

But from a dozen kilometres out to sea this spring afternoon, perched on the prow of a modern utase – built of steel and powered by roaring diesels -you see nothing of these horrors. The smokestacks of the factory have faded in the haze. We are travelling to one of the Amakusa islands to listen to the story of what remains, even after Chernobyl, the closest thing to environmental genocide the world has known.

Goshonoura is one of the larger islands in the Shiranui Sea, and was home in the 1950s to around 10,000 people. Barely half remain, and many of those are old beyond working. The wood-frame houses with their shogi screens and tatami mats are built in the old style, separated by metre-wide alleys, their blue roofs covered with fishing nets to prevent tiles blowing away in the typhoons that occasionally swoop during the August Bon festivities.

Until five years ago, there was not a car on the island, 20 years ago there was no running water – just wells and buckets. Fishing was the only industry and fish the only food, apart from a few vegetables raised in little plots. The island doesn’t even have a butcher’s shop.

“Without fish we would starve. We eat it three meals a day,” says Masamori Murakami, a wrinkled walnut of a man, 77 years old, who has lived on Goshonoura all his life … apart from a brief excursion to Bougainville and Rabaul as a hospital orderly during World War II. We are sitting with his wife Kozue (she’s 80) at a typical Amakusa banquet – grilled sardines, sashimi of black sea bream, something else fishy simmered in sake that doesn’t appear in any dictionary.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Murakami was a fisherman until the disease got the better of him. But that’s getting ahead of the story. The first time they noticed something odd going on was round about Showa 25 – in the way they calculate time around here, the 25th year of the reign of Emperor Hirohito – ie 1950.

First it was the cats, says Murakami. Quite suddenly they would start to foam at the mouth and race around in circles. Sometimes they would leap off the jetty into the sea and drown: cat suicide fever they called it.

Then one night, Murakami’s beloved German shepherd dog, Kuro, came down with it; he began barking madly and dashing around, crashing into walls. In the morning he was dead.

Although Murakami did not know it at the time, all around the Shiranui Sea, over an area of more than 1,000 sq km, the wildlife was undergoing a similar demonic possession. Dead fish were found floating in the water, beds of clams suddenly died, crows and seagulls dropped from the sky. In a dozen towns and villages, suddenly there were no cats or dogs left alive.

And then it was the turn of the people.

The Murakamis’ second child, a boy they called Yasuhiro, was born profoundly handicapped. Cerebral palsy, the doctor called it. “He could do nothing except cry,” says his mother. “He couldn’t crawl, couldn’t hug me, couldn’t even hold his head up.” He died at the age of five.

Their next-born, a girl called Noriko, was the same. Again the doctor called it cerebral palsy. And again she died before her sixth birthday.

This was in 1952, and although the fishing folk of Goshonoura had no way of knowing it, an epidemic of stillbirths, deformed children, and adults stricken with “dancing cat disease” was breaking out. The ocean which for millennia had nurtured the people of the Amakusa islands was now beginning to kill them.

“We had no way of knowing what was causing it,” says Murakami. “The rumour went around that it was a contagious disease, and so people kept quiet about having it in the family, for fear their children would not be able to find husbands and wives. We did not know it was the fish – how could we know?”

When the Chisso Corporation (the name means nitrogen) came to Minamata in 1908, its founding father, Jun Noguchi, had some simple advice in employee relations for his managers. “Treat the workers like cows and horses,” he told them, a command that makes today’s Chisso PR man wince at, but not retract, the quote.

Even before the horrors of Minamata were exposed, Chisso had an unsavoury history. The factory was built to take advantage of the boom in petrochemicals during the Japan-Russia war of 1904-05, and the company expanded during the 1930s and 1940s into occupied Korea and Manchuria where it used slave labour.

TODAY, IT’S hard to imagine the white beaches where the older people swam as children and the orange groves that once surrounded Minamata. The Chisso factory, a Dickensian maze of smokestacks and chemical storage tanks festooned with pipelines carrying sulphuric acid, dominates the town.

It is still Minamata’s biggest employer, though its workforce has declined from a peak of more than 2,000 to around 700 today. As recently as 1973, the mayor could boast: “What is good for Chisso is good for Minamata.” Originally a hydro-electric company, Chisso diversified into carbide production when it came to Minamata, and then in the 1930s switched to the manufacture of acetaldehyde, a chemical used in making plastics. As part of the process, mercury was used as a catalyst – and the stinking, poisonous residue was dumped into the Shiranui Sea.

The strange epidemic that was afflicting families such as the Murakamis first came to official attention in 1956, when a five-year-old girl was brought to the Chisso factory hospital apparently suffering from chronic brain damage – she could not walk, her speech was incoherent, and she was delirious. A few days later, her two-year-old sister was admitted to the hospital with the same symptoms. Then four more people from a neighbouring family were stricken.

Until then, doctors had come up with a variety of explanations for the condition that had already been ravaging the fishing communities for three or four years. Encephalitis, alcoholism, syphilis, infantile paralysis and cerebral palsy were some of the diagnoses. It was left to Dr Hajime Hosakawa, the doctor at the Chisso hospital and one of the few heroes of this story, to report, on May 1, 1956, the official “discovery” of Minamata disease: “An unclarified disease of the central nervous system has broken out.”

As the patients piled up in his wards, and the first deaths were reported from outlying villages, Hosakawa and a team from nearby Kumamoto University began a medical detective hunt for the cause. By 1957, they had narrowed it down to an environmental poison; the following year doctors were sure it was heavy metal poisoning from fish; and by 1959 there was no doubt that mercury was the killer – but where was it coming from?

Chisso, which was then dumping more than 10 tonnes of mercury a year into the sea, claimed that its waste was “inorganic” mercury which could not possibly get into the food chain. It threw up a number of red herrings, including blaming ammunition which had been dumped in Minamata Bay. It began a massive cover-up of the disaster, a cover-up which was to last more than 30 years and in which the company would be aided and abetted by the Japanese government.

Deathbed testimony years later by Hosakawa was to reveal that since 1959 Chisso had known that the waste from its factory at Minamata was poisoning the people. In a simple experiment, the doctor fed a laboratory cat with 100 grams of the effluent, and watched as within days it duplicated the symptoms of Minamata disease. He took his results to Chisso. The company banned further research and hid the data, the doctor testified.

As for the government, its guilt was finally established only in March this year, when the Kumamoto District Court ruled that it knew about, and should have acted earlier to stop, Chisso’s fatal pollution. The court accepted the evidence of an aged administrator, the former president of Kumamoto University who had been appointed head of a special government task force on Minamata disease, that back in 1959 he reported to the Minister for Health in Tokyo that organic mercury was poisoning the people.

Takeyuki Wanibuchi’s voice trembled with anger as he described how, the very next day, the health minister abolished the task force and buried the report.

For another nine years, until Chisso stopped manufacturing acetaldehyde(for economic not environmental reasons), the company was allowed to keep pumping its poison into the sea, lying about the effectiveness of new recycling technology it had introduced, denying its responsibility to compensate the hundreds, then thousands, of new victims flooding into the clinics, the hospitals and the morgues around Minamata.

HIS HEAD lolls on his shoulders and Kazumitsu Hannaga makes unintelligible noises in his throat as the doctor pushes him in his wheelchair towards the visitors.

Dr Hiroyuki Moriyama, who knows as much as anyone about Minamata disease, says, “He’s not one of our worst patients – he can’t speak, but he does understand some things.” As if on cue, Kazumitsu lifts both arms and tries to make a double V-for-victory sign with his twisted fingers.

We are in Meisui-en Municipal Hospital which overlooks the sea and is surrounded by pink cherry blossoms – a place of beauty that is home to 60 people all suffering from that ugly, man-made disease, Minamata poisoning. Another 15 are on the waiting-list. Kazumitsu has been a full-time, full-care patient in this hospital for 20 of his 37 years. He will die here.

There is no cure for Minamata disease once it has attacked the brain; all Moriyama and his staff can do is keep their patients happy and comfortable and guard them against infections.

Kazumitsu is one of the 60 officially certified “Minamata children” who were, like the Murakamis’ two babies, born chronically handicapped. The mercury from the fish their mothers ate passed across the placenta and damaged their central nervous systems in the womb.

The heart-stopping pictures by the American war photographer Eugene Smith of poor parents feeding and bathing these children shocked the world as much as any of the combat pictures he took, and focused attention on the plight of the victims of Minamata.

Now, 20 years later, the world has forgotten, the victims believe. Many of those anguished parents in Smith’s portraits are dead, and their “children”, now in their 30s and 40s, are cared for out of sight behind the walls of hospitals such as Meisui-en.

But at least now – though it may be derided as too little, and far too late- the families of some victims such as Kazumitsu have received compensation from Chisso, and their medical costs are paid. Many thousands of other victims, after 30 years of suffering and a whole series of court cases, have received not one red yen.

Just how many victims there are is a matter of dispute between the company, which is finally, begrudgingly, paying up; the government, which is still denying its culpability; and the doctors, who cannot agree on a definition.

“It has become a social problem,” says Moriyama, “not a medical one – there is no way of knowing who has the disease, and who does not.”

According to the Environment Agency, which now has responsibility for the victims, 13,000 people have applied for compensation, of whom only 1,768, or one in seven, has been accepted. Nearly 1,000 of them have died. In an effort to explain the discrepancy, Buichi Oishi, a former head of the agency, outraged the victims when he declared at a medical conference: “A fake patient is a fake … he’s not a real patient. Such a person is none other than a deceitful citizen of Minamata City.”

Hiroaki Hokimoto has another explanation. Hokimoto, now aged 57, swam in Minamata Bay while growing up and ate the fish customers used to trade for clogs at his father’s shop. In the early 1970s, both his parents were certified as suffering from Minamata disease and were confined to Meisui-en Hospital, where his mother died a few years ago and his father remains a patient.

Hokimoto applied for compensation himself when he began to feel the first symptoms of the disease – a numbness in the hands and feet, unsteady gait, hearing trouble. He and his wife, Mineko, who also has symptoms, were knocked back. “They make it almost impossible … when they test you to see if you can feel anything, they jab the needle in so far, blood spurts out,” says Mineko.

The Hokimotos are among about 2,000 rejected Minamata victims who have banded together to fight a series of mega-trials which have been going on around Japan for the past 20 years.

So far, all four major decisions have gone against the company and the government, but they, the government in particular, refuse to accept the results. While we were in Minamata, it announced that they would appeal against the Kumamoto verdict – with Japan’s moribund judicial system, this could mean another five years’ delay, five years before the 100 successful claimants in this particular case see any money.

“I can’t believe it,” says Saburo Hashiguchi, a 67-year-old former utase fisherman who retired when his hands became too numb and gnarled through Minamata disease to work the ropes and nets. “Why is it taking so long?Doesn’t the government care? Many of the plaintiffs are over 70 now, 10 of them have died this year … must we all die before we get justice?”

The news of the appeal shocked the victims and their lawyers, who had been expecting a bonus as a result of the planned royal marriage on June 9 of Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako Owada, a career diplomat. It had been leaked from the bureaucracy that a settlement would be offered in all outstanding cases to save embarrassment during the royal nuptials.

The reason is that one of the kingpins at Chisso for much of the company’s sordid history was Yutaka Egashira, the grandfather of the bride-to-be, who is living in retirement in Tokyo at the age of 85, and is still listed as an adviser to Chisso in his latest Who’s Who entry.

Egashira, a director of the Industrial Bank of Japan, was seconded to the Chisso board in 1962 – when the company knew its effluent was poisoning the population – and served as president and then chairman of the company from 1964 to 1973.

Teruo Kawamoto, the leader of the militant Minamata Patients’ League, which staged a violent occupation of Chisso’s Tokyo headquarters during the 1970s, believes he has blood on his hands. “Mr Egashira’s responsibility is large,”he says.

Elsewhere, it would probably matter little, but even in 1993 Japanese executives and officials hire private detectives to check on the past of their children’s spouses-to-be to make sure there is no ancestral “bad blood” such as a Korean connection or one to the Ainu, Japan’s original aboriginal inhabitants. Prince Naruhito acknowledged what he called “the Chisso problem”when he announced the engagement, which is widely believed to have been postponed under pressure from Imperial Household officials fearing embarrassment if the media got hold of the story. It did, but deferentially has declined to use it.

SO WHY, after all these years, doesn’t Chisso settle with the Murakamis, the Hokimotos, and the hundreds of other victims of its pollution? The man they chose to answer is Kosaku Ito, manager of administration, accounts and human resources, who, like other managers in this hierarchical company, wears a grey dustcoat to signify that he is just one of the workers, and a green armband to signify that he is really very important.

“We would go bankrupt,” he says, spitting the words out. “Then there would be no money left to pay anyone.” Chisso is a huge and diversified corporation today – it lists 28 major subsidiaries in its glossy annual report, and its products, displayed in a glass case at the Minamata factory, range from perfume to Christmas tree decorations, greenhouse plastic, liquid crystals and tins of Russian tea. It made a profit of $80 million last year.

But, according to Ito, this mighty company is deeply in debt because of the money it has had to pay the Minamata victims, and to fill in the bay it polluted. He says the payout has been more than $1 billion, and pensions and medical costs add another $100 million a year to the bill.

He gestures at the landscape of plant and machinery. “It’s all mortgaged to the bank,” he says. The debts are $1.5 billion.

He does not know what the assets are. He bridles at suggestions by the victims’ lawyers that Chisso has been systematically shuffling its assets into related companies to avoid its responsibilities.

In fact, in one final irony, the payments to the victims – they get a maximum lump sum of almost $300,000 if they are totally disabled, plus medical costs and a pension of $2,000 a month – are actually financed by the federal and prefectural governments. At the end of the day, the taxpayers of Japan are footing the bill for Chisso’s black crime.

DOWN THE road from the factory you pass a flattened wasteland of raw, reddish soil and stunted grass. A sign announces this will be a park to “let the children (and) the world recognise the importance of environment protection … learning from the lessons of Minamata disease”. It is a sort of Hiroshima peace museum for the victims of a different holocaust. The poisonous sludge from the bay was dredged out and 58 hectares of land reclaimed. It cost$400 million and took 13 years – but it was still not enough. Out in the sea you can see the double line of yellow buoys that marks the netted area inside which the fish are still deemed too dangerous to eat.

Up on the hill, overlooking the bay, in a futuristic glass and concrete building, school parties from all over Japan are led past huge blow-ups of Eugene Smith’s pictures of Minamata’s suffering, past dioramas, and film footage of nightmarish actuality. A cat convulses in its death dance. A child victim twitches in agony.

The fishermen may again be harvesting the fish of the Shiranui Sea, but the museum and the memories remain as a warning to the world that not even the oceans are infinite, and that those who violate them sow the seeds of calamity.

Publishing Info

Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 5 June 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 36
Word count: 3493
Photography: MAYU KANAMORI
1. Chisso’s factory dumped more than 10 tonnes of mercury a year into the sea.
2. The Murakamis, who lost two children to Minamata disease.
3. A planned memorial park on reclaimed land.
4. Royal embarrassment: Prince Naruhito with his ‘Chisso problem’ fiancee, Masako Owada
5. ‘Without fish we would starve': fishing boats anchored at the harbour on Goshonoura island in the Shiranui Sea.
6. One of the Eugene Smith photos that shocked the world.
7. Dr Hiroyuki Moriyama with ‘Minamata child’ Kazumitsu Hannaga, who was born handicapped.