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This Borrowed Earth
Lessons From The Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around The World
By Robert Emmet Hernan
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Robert Emmet Hernan
All rights reserved.
MINAMATA, JAPAN 1950s
Minamata is a fishing town beautifully situated on a bay in the foothills of the mountains on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. In 1908, the Chisso electrochemical company established a plant there. Labor and land were cheap, and water from the mountains supplied plenty of hydropower.
The company began by using calcium carbide to make acetylene, a fuel for lamps, and then developed facilities for making nitrogen fertilizer and other products. The fertilizer was important for Japanese farming, and it turned into a major export product when the First World War disrupted supplies from Europe. After the war, Chisso developed organic chemical compounds to produce a variety of materials, including acetaldehyde, which employed mercury as a catalyst. Acetaldehyde, first made in 1932, was used in plastics, pharmaceuticals, photographic chemicals, and perfumes. The company prospered as a result of the economic reconstruction following World War II and the Korean War. By the 1950s, the company reemerged as a dominant force in Minamata. Increased production of acetaldehyde and other organic chemical products resulted in a concomitant increase in wastewater, which Chisso continued to dump into Minamata Bay.
Already in the 1920s fishermen had complained about the pollution of their fishing grounds in Minamata Bay, but Chisso was a major source of jobs and revenue and was able to make small payments to the fishermen in return for the right to continue polluting. By the 1950s the waste disposal practices began to catch up with the company as the pollution's impact began to be felt by inhabitants of Minamata and neighboring villages.
Fishing was always a critical resource in Minamata. What the fishermen did not sell, they and their families and neighbors ate. In the early 1950s, mullet, lobster, and shad began to disappear from the once-fertile fishing grounds. Dead fish were found floating on the sea; birds dropped dead from the sky. The local fishermen had to borrow money to eat and to buy nylon nets in order to capture what few fish were left. Nets were often lifted out of the sea bearing only a heavy sludge from Chisso's wastewater. The cats in the village started to dance crazily, bash themselves against walls, jump into the sea, and drown.
In 1954, Dr. Hajime Hosokawa, director of the hospital at the Chisso plant, began to see patients with impaired nervous systems. Mostly fishermen and their families, they had difficulty walking and talking and suffered wild mood swings. Their bodies were racked with convulsions. Most disturbing, newborns were exhibiting symptoms, which indicated the presence of a congenital form of the disease. Local health officials conducted a survey of physicians in the area and found that scores of patients had presented similar symptoms and that many of them had died. Especially affected were the fishing communities south of Minamata, where several members of the same family were often afflicted.
Eiko Sugimoto was born in Modõ, a small fishing community just south of Minamata. Her father was the boss of the local net fishery, and as the only child, though a girl, she was expected to carry on the business. One day in 1958, she returned home from a fishing trip and found her mother confused and unable to light her cigarette; the floor was covered with matches. Sugimoto's father took her mother to the hospital. Since this strange illness appeared to affect members of the same family, neighbors feared the disease might be contagious. When Sugimoto walked down to the shore to care for their boat, she was stoned by her friends and neighbors. Covered with cuts and bruises, she tried to find comfort and safety in a neighboring house. Instead, her neighbors threw excrement on her. Shopkeepers refused to touch the diseased; they made them pass their money in special baskets or leave it on the floor so it could be picked up with chopsticks. When Sugimoto and her father also felt sick, they hid it. Treated like lepers in their own communities, the victims felt deeply ashamed. Recriminations destroyed once-close fishing communities.
As the disease spread through the mid-1950s, suspicions fell on Chisso's wastewater since it was widely known to have ruined the fishing grounds in the area. But no one knew what was in the wastewater, and Chisso was not providing any information. Researchers struggled with studies of a host of pollutants found in the bay and were not able to isolate any particular toxic material that would cause such a disease.
In late 1958 a British neurologist who had visited Minamata suggested in The Lancet that the disease's symptoms were similar to those produced by organic mercury poisoning. Organic, or methyl, mercury concentrates in the brain and attacks the central nervous system, killing brain cells and turning the brain into a sponge, full of holes. Since it destroys nerve cells, there is no cure for severe cases. The poison can kill a victim in weeks, or slowly eat away at the body for years.
Within a year, a pathologist, Dr. Tadao Takeuchi at Kumamoto University, confirmed the findings, and a special governmental research committee also found that organic mercury was the cause, although it did not attribute the mercury's origins to Chisso's operations. The government disbanded the committee as soon as the report was issued and transferred any further research to a group under the control of several trade ministers who were sympathetic to the company.
Chisso executives tried to deflect attention away from its wastewater by advancing its own theory that the disease was caused by ammunition dumped in the sea at the end of World War II. A researcher at Kumamoto University, Dr. K. Irukayama, discovered, however, that inorganic mercury used as a catalyst in the production of acetaldehyde in the factory was converted into organic mercury. He concluded that the illness was caused by the discharge from Chisso's wastewater, which contained organic mercury. Chisso disputed the charge and claimed that its wastewater could not be the cause since it used only harmless inorganic mercury in its production. The company did not share samples of its wastewater, so no one could disprove the claim.
No one, that is, except Chisso's own Dr. Hosokawa. The doctor had been conducting a series of experiments on cats by feeding them food sprinkled with various chemicals from Chisso's processes. When he fed wastewater from the process that produced acetaldehyde to a cat, it exhibited the same symptoms as those afflicted with Minamata Disease. An autopsy of the cat and lab results confirmed that the cat's cerebellum was destroyed, just as the fishermen's were. Hosokawa informed the Chisso management of the disturbing discovery. The officials ordered Hosokawa to stop his experiments, and the company destroyed all the cats. No replication of the experiment was allowed.
Not only did Chisso deny that its production wastewater was responsible for the disease and suppress Dr. Hosokawa's evidence, the company also steadily increased its production of acetaldehyde and the mercury-laden wastewater. Production in 1950 was 450 tons per month; by 1956 it was 1,325 tons per month; and by 1958 it had increased to 1,500 tons per month. When the water in the sea near the point where the wastewater was discharged south of the plant became heavily polluted, the wastewater was diverted into the mouth of the Minamata River, north of the plant. Dr. Hosokawa warned Chisso against this diversion, but the company ignored him. Within a year, the disease emerged in fishing villages north of Minamata. Yet Chisso continued to increase the manufacture of acetaldehyde with its mercury byproduct, reaching 4,000 tons per month in 1960.
As the disease spread, it became clear that it was related to the consumption of fish that had been contaminated with some toxic substance. Fishing catches had decreased by 90 percent since the outbreak of the disease, and what few fish were left in the area were seldom sold. At first the public simply stopped buying it. Later, the local government barred the sale of fish from the area, which only aggravated the fishermen's financial plight. Fishermen began to hold demonstrations to protest Chisso's destruction of their fishing grounds.
The patients who suffered from Minamata Disease also began to organize. They camped out in front of Chisso's plant and conducted peaceful sit-in demonstrations with the help of a tent donated by Chisso union workers. The patients demanded financial support from Chisso to pay for medical and living expenses. Chisso dominated the economy of Minamata, contributing over half of the city's tax revenue and over one-third of the jobs, and most of the local city officials were former Chisso employees. Because of this, most Minamata citizens were unsympathetic and even hostile to the patients. Through the intervention of the local government, Chisso agreed to a two-part settlement. In November 1959 Chisso agreed to pay the fishing cooperative of 7,000 families ¥35 million ($98,000) as a lump sum compensation, but deducted ¥10 million ($28,000) for damage to its property during one of the demonstrations. Each family ended up with an equivalent sum of about ten dollars. Chisso also provided ¥65 million (about $180,000) for restoration of the fishing grounds, but this was in the form of a loan to the fishermen's cooperative. Then in December 1959, Chisso agreed to also settle with the patients by offering a take-it-or-leave-it deal: ¥30,000 per year ($83) support for each child, ¥100,000 per year ($276) support for each adult, and a lump sum of ¥300,000 ($833) for each dead person, of which there were about 30.
Chisso offered the money only as a mimaikin, or condolence, rather than as a hosokin, or compensation. In Japan, the condolence is offered as a gift to those less fortunate, as a form of charity, in contrast to compensation, which reflects an admission of responsibility for the harm. Moreover, it was traditional for those receiving a condolence to be grateful and to never again ask for more. Through this deal, the company was also spared the embarrassment of having to ceremonially apologize to the victims.
As part of the settlement, Chisso received a release from the patients to the effect that if proof ever emerged in the future that identified Chisso's wastewater as the cause of the illness, the patients would be precluded from receiving more money from the company. The patients were unaware at the time that Chisso already had the proof, from Dr. Hosokawa and his cat experiments, that the wastewater was indeed the cause of their suffering. For seven more years Chisso discharged over 500 tons per year of mercury-contaminated waste into the sea.
Since no one except Chisso's managers knew of the continuing disposal of the toxic material, most people of Minamata believed that the problem had been resolved after the settlements in November and December 1959. Although more people began to show symptoms of the disease, the fishermen's union pressured its members not to report any new incidence of the disease in order to prevent further damage to the reputation of Minamata's fishing resources. Families discouraged members from identifying themselves as patients since it brought disgrace to the entire family. Culturally, the misfortunes of individuals and families were inextricably intertwined.
Not everyone, however, was willing to deny the existence of the disease. One woman, Michiko Ishimure, came to be the voice of the victims of Minamata Disease through her chronicle of the suffering of the victims, Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease. Ishimure's family was from the Amakusa Islands, across the Shiranui Sea from Minamata, and, like many others, her family had left the islands in search of work. While her grandfather and father were skilled stonemasons, the grand-father's business ran into difficulties, and Ishimure was raised with few physical comforts.
Ishimure's family lived near a cemetery and crematory, an isolation hospital, and a brothel. Ishimure visited the crematory and watched the smoke rise as the dead—epidemic victims, strangers, and the poor—were burned. She spent hours with the prostitutes—girls from poor fishing villages—sitting in their laps as they had their hair done by the local hair-dresser. On occasion, she dressed like the prostitutes and paraded along the road. Her grandmother was blind and mad (unrelated to the mercury poisoning), and she went into fits: groping, clutching, and crying out with inhuman noises. She often disappeared from the house. Ishimure would go out looking for her so often that people referred to Ishimure as her grandmother's shadow and to the grandmother as Ishimure's little play doll.
On one occasion the Emperor of Japan was scheduled to visit the Chisso plant in Minamata. All vagrant and deranged people were to be relocated to a small island for the length of the visit. When a policeman came to inform Ishimure's father that his mother would have to be removed, he refused, saying that he would kill himself rather than suffer such a disgrace. The grandmother was allowed to stay, and Ishimure vowed to follow her father's fearlessness in standing up for those, like her grandmother, who needed protection.
Ishimure married a laborer who became a primary school teacher. A son, Michio, was born, and Ishimure supplemented their meager income by bartering on the black market, trading what little fish could be caught for food supplies. Ishimure also began to write, and she published her first verse in 1953. It was about her blind, mad grandmother, and about herself:
If I go mad, like Grandma, I too
May be kicked out of the house
The dark poems did not sit well with many, but through her writing Ishimure met Gan Tanigawa, a young revolutionary poet and an activist in the Japanese Communist Party. Tanigawa's fierce, uncompromising demands on literature and society toughened Ishimure. And she needed it, for she was about to discover the afflicted of Minamata.
Tanigawa's literary circle also included Satoru Akazaki, who worked for the city of Minamata. Akazaki obtained, without permission, a copy of what became known as "The Red Book," a journal kept by doctors at a secret ward at Minamata Hospital, where the victims of the strange disease were quarantined. The details of the assaults on the victims from this disease formed an excruciating story for Ishimure.
Ishimure's exposure soon became more immediate. Her son contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to Minamata Hospital. The TB ward was right next to the ward housing the Minamata victims, and she heard terrifying howls from the ward and saw fingernail scratches along the walls.
Ishimure saw patients who were unconscious, and others lying motionless, staring into space with wide-open eyes. Kama Tsurumatsu, a 56-year-old fisherman, who seemed to be little more than a skeleton, frequently fell out of his bed. It was his falling out of his boat while fishing that had led his family to hospitalize him. Yet his eyes still pierced Ishimure, perhaps aided by the sunken cheeks in which they were set. The pain and sadness tore at Ishimure.
Ishimure also met Yuki Sakagami, Patient No. 37, also called Yukijo. Yukijo started fishing when she was three years old, and she was a gifted fisherwoman. Even when fish began to disappear from the sea around Minamata, she could find fish for herself and her new husband, Mohei. Mohei bought a new boat when they got married, and they spent their time together fishing in the sea that Yukijo considered her garden. Mohei was silent and warm; Yukijo was outgoing, often playing, singing, and dancing with children in the neighborhood.
After they had been married for only two years, in the mid-1950s, when Yukijo was forty-one, the symptoms arrived. At first she dropped laundry that she was carrying on her back, without knowing that she had dropped it. Then her hands and legs started to go numb, and she began to stumble. Before long she could speak only in fragments, struggling with each word. Yukijo could no longer help Mohei with the fishing. She thought that perhaps these difficulties were due to fallout from American and Chinese nuclear bomb tests, or the result of early menopause. The latter issue was eliminated when Yukijo became pregnant.
While in the hospital, Yukijo had an abortion because the doctors concluded that her life was threatened. After the procedure was done, fish was served for dinner. Yukijo thought the fish was her lost child. She spoke to it, touched it fondly, and ate it, thinking she was eating her dead child. When a group of dignitaries visited the ward, Yukijo went into a convulsion during which she suddenly shouted, "Long Live the Emperor!" followed by a rendition of the national anthem. The visitors fled. But the behavior served her well with other audiences, for she took to visiting the nearby TB ward, dancing like the cats used to, and singing. She earned cigarettes this way and amused the patients. Yukijo spoke of herself as a "rickety, half-insane, drooling weirdo patient," but at least she was only half insane. The half that remained sane accounted for the loneliness and isolation that she felt and expressed to Ishimure.
Excerpted from This Borrowed Earth by Robert Emmet Hernan. Copyright © 2010 Robert Emmet Hernan. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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