Originally created 07/20/98

Mercury poison still haunts city



MINAMATA, Japan -- Fading sunlight reddens the fumes billowing from the smokestacks at the sprawling Chisso chemical plant, the city's biggest employer and, to some, its worst affliction.

In 1932, Chisso Co. began using Minamata's cobalt-blue bay as a dumping ground for organic mercury waste. The result was the worst case of industrial pollution Japan has ever known -- thousands of people were poisoned and crippled and hundreds died.

A 26-year ban on fishing in the bay was lifted earlier this year, after the government declared the bay free of mercury.

Chisso, however, still dominates the town. And so does the stigma and pain it created.

Residents, healthy or not, are shunned by outsiders, and once proud fishing villages are dying. Jobs are scarce. First- and second-generation victims of the poisoning continue to suffer.

"The sea was our mother," said Tsuginori Hamamoto, a victim of the disease and former fisherman. "The children can't survive when the mother dies."

Before the Chisso disaster, Minamata was a solid, if not affluent, city on the shores of Japan's southern island of Kyushu. Its natural beauty is striking. Hills are draped in forests of pine and dotted with palm trees; the surrounding sea is a breathtaking expanse of blue.

But dead fish began littering the scenic waters in the 1950s.

Before long, residents who ate the fish displayed numbness, tunnel vision, slurred speech, spasms. Many suffered violent convulsions -- a strange dance of death -- before going mad and dying.

"Minamata disease" lived on to curse another generation. Children of victims were born with severe mental retardation.

All told, thousands were afflicted and more than 900 died. As of April 1997, more than 17,000 people had applied to the government to be certified as Minamata victims; 12,615 have been officially recognized.

"If the same thing happened again, people would be able to sue not only for physical damage, but for the psychological pain that was inflicted," said Dr. Hiroyuki Moriyama, director of a clinic that cares for bedridden Minamata victims.

But times were different then.

Chisso knew mercury was causing the disease as early as 1956. Its own company doctor made the discovery testing waste water on cats. Executives ordered the cats destroyed and continued to pump out mercury waste.

The pollution didn't stop until 1968, when the national government -- slow to rule against a major corporation -- officially recognized that Chisso had caused the environmental disaster.

By then, the town was torn apart.

Locked in a decades-long battle for compensation, victims of the poisoning were accused by their own townspeople of the same vice that had caused Chisso to dump mercury: greed. They got hate mail, and were called "roaches" and "freaks."

Chisso was first ordered to make a one-time "consolation" payment of about $130,000 to certified victims as of 1973.

But the battle for compensation dragged on. In 1996, the government instructed Chisso to pay an additional $184 million to 10,353 previously unrecognized victims.

Chisso spokesman Masaaki Kuboki said the company is complying with its responsibilities to victims.

But Minamata's scars are unhealed.

Businesses were scared away by the disaster, triggering an exodus from the city, whose population has dwindled from 50,000 in the 1950s to a little over 32,000 today. Jobs are scarce, and per capita income has lagged the national average by 20 percent to 30 percent for two decades.

The fishing industry has been hit especially hard.

In the village of Modo, Jinichi Hamatsuki, an 83-year-old Minamata disease victim, recalled scavenging for sweet potatoes to survive after the bay was closed to fishing. He went as far as China to find work on fishing boats.

Many fishermen turned to tangerine farming. Others, sapped of the will to start again, became dependent on welfare.

Hamatsuki believes the fishing days of towns like this are gone forever. "The young people don't even know how to dock a boat," he scoffed while untangling ropes on his rickety boat rocking by the docks.

What Minamata's youths do know is that they are tarred with the same stigma as their elders.

"Every year from the time we're five, they teach us about Minamata disease in school," said 18-year-old high-school student Taisuke Matsumoto. "It's enough!"

Escaping Minamata isn't easy.

A clothing shop owner, Koichi Hara, 39, moved to Osaka as a boy to escape the oppressive atmosphere of Minamata. What he found there was worse: constant bullying and physical assaults by schoolmates who would mimic the jerky movements of Minamata disease sufferers.

"I came back to Minamata because of the discrimination I faced," Hara said.

He said the city is divided between those who want the world to remember their tragedy so other disasters might be avoided and those who just want to move on with their lives.

"There's a silent majority that would like everybody to stop talking about Minamata disease," he said. "The city is dark enough as it is."