By Lou Conte
It began with dead fish floating on the surface of Minamata Bay in the 1950’s and ended with over two thousand certified human victims and a devastated city. In 1973, Judge Jirp Saito directed the Chisso Corporation to compensate victims of Minamata Disease, a form of mercury poisoning. Chisso’s factory had poisoned the bay and the people of Minamata. The death-bed confession of Dr. Hajime Hasokowa, a doctor, researcher and Chisso employee who uncovered the company’s role in the poisoning, was critical to the court’s decision.
Many have heard about the infamous Minamata mercury poisoning incident but few have really considered the ordeal of the victims. Minamata’s tragedy is not just about mercury poisoning. It is about what can happen to and between people when the truth is not told.
We can learn from their tragedy. I believe that they would want us to.
Minamata was an agricultural and fishing village on the western shore of Kyusho, in southern Japan. In 1907, the Chisso Corporation opened a factory that produced plastics and other industrial products. Minamata prospered and became a thriving “one company” city. Chisso brought economic growth and improved the standard of living of the residents.
Mercury, a by-product of the manufacturing process, was dumped into the bay where it ultimately entered the food chain. Sea food from the bay was the primary source of protein for the city’s residents who celebrated their love of the sea in a yearly harbor festival.
The first signs of mercury poisoning were cats “dancing” – suffering mercury induced spasms actually - in the streets. Some of the cats appeared to commit suicide by throwing themselves into the bay.
Then people began to get sick. Some would suddenly shout uncontrollably and suffer slurred speech. Skills such as writing, holding chop sticks or buttoning shirts were lost. Victims trembled and had trouble walking. Some would tear at their clothes, writhing in agony. The residents had no idea what was happening and called it the “strange disease.” Many suffered a type of paralysis that contorted their limbs. Some died quickly, within weeks. Some lingered for years. Their suffering was appalling.
Then it got even worse. Children were born with horrible birth defects.
Victims and their families suspected that the sickness could be tied to the pollution caused by Chisso. Many residents blamed the victims and suggested that they had brought the disease upon themselves. Villager turned against villager. Fishermen were blamed, shunned and suffered discrimination at the hands of “more modern” neighbors. Those who questioned if Chisso was responsible for the illness were criticized for being disloyal to the company that had done so much good for the City. Questioning authority in Japan at that time was almost unthinkable. Japanese culture was built upon respect for authority and duty to the community. It was heretical to believe that those in authority would harm the community or be responsible for the “strange disease”.
But they were. Dr. Hasokowa proved it in 1959 through his research on “Cat 400” which showed that the mercury his company was dumping into the bay was responsible for the “dancing cats”. Chisso executives directed Hasokowa to remain silent. The research was secreted away in company files. The company instead produced research showing that the disease was caused by eating rotten fish or by military munitions that were dumped into the sea. The company made small “sympathy payments” to victims and moved on. Victims brought their case to government officials but the government backed Chisso.
Hasokawa, a tragic figure, stayed on at Chisso and worked in the company hospital, caring for victims, saying nothing. He is reported to have been consumed with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and is remembered to this day as a man torn between loyalty to his company and his duty to the community.
In the 1960’s, residents of Niigata, Japan came down with symptoms similar to Minamata Disease. Hasokowa, now working with researchers at Kumamoto University, proved that Niigata victims were also suffering from mercury poisoning caused by a company called Showa Denko which had also dumped mercury into waterways. In 1968, the government conceded that mercury poisoning caused the sickness in Niigata. Demonstrations and protests re-ignited in Minamata and other parts of Japan.
But Chisso still refused to accept responsibility.
Families of victims stood in silence holding photographs of their injured loved ones in front of Chisso’s Headquarters in Tokyo. Some confronted company executives and demanded that they look in them the eye. Demonstrators stormed the gates of the factory, demanding accountability. Victims appeared at meetings of the Central Pollution Board and insisted that board members touch and hold their injured children and loved ones. This kind of social unrest was shocking and unprecedented in Japan.
The work of renowned and fearless World War II photo-journalist W. Eugene Smith captured the poisoning victims in haunting black and white photographs. Smith also captured the social strife and his photographs were published in Life Magazine. Minamata was now an international story. Chisso executives resented Smith’s work. When Smith went to photograph a meeting between company representatives and victims, he was brutally assaulted by Chisso loyalists. The beating was so severe that Smith was left nearly blind in one eye.
Ultimately, it was Dr. Hasokowa’s taped confession to court officials that confirmed the truth. While dying of cancer, Hasokowa disclosed his findings on “Cat 400” and that Chisso executives covered it up. His confession was played in the Kumamoto Court House on July 4, 1970. One can only wonder what the demonstrators in front of the Court House felt as the truth was finally acknowledged.
Chisso was ordered to pay compensation to victims of Minamata Disease. Eventually, some executives went to prison. Chisso was eventually broken up into smaller companies. Many residents left Minamata and the city’s population has dramatically declined.
As of 2001, there were 2,265 certified victims of Minamata Disease, 1,784 died. The children born with the disease are reported to be in declining health. Some still cared for by elderly parents.
Many feel that the Minamata tragedy was critical to the development of democracy in Japan. The Minamata Disease Municipal Museum serves as a memorial to the victims.
So much of what we have experienced in the vaccine-autism controversy feels like an echo of Minamata.
When the CDC withholds research showing a dramatic increase in regressive autism in mothers who received flu vaccines, we must remember that similar events occurred in Minamata. When industry leaders hold secret meetings to bury research showing a link between mercury containing vaccines and autism, we must remember that company executives did the same in Minamata. When autism research about old fathers or old mothers is published but no cause is sought to explain the skyrocketing autism rates of Minnesota’s Somali children, we must remember the “rotten fish” research put forth by Chisso scientists. When the Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation fails to disclose that so many cases compensated for vaccine induced brain damage included autism, we must remember that the government also enabled Chisso. When vaccine industry advocates shut down Congressional hearings on the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, we must remember that Chisso also had fanatical loyalists who wanted to stop negative publicity.
When truth is suppressed, journalism is censored and victims suffer discrimination and blame, we must remember Minamata.
But we must also remember that those who were vilified, shunned and even assaulted ultimately prevailed. The truth came out.
One sign held by a Minamata Disease victim at a demonstration in 1971 said “We shall pursue you to justice, and we shall not forget.”
Louis Conte is the father of triplet boys, age 13, two with autism. He is a board member of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy and the Autism Action Network. He is a co-author of Unanswered Questions from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program: A Review of Compensated Cases of Vaccine-Induced Brain Injury.
Louis Conte is the author of The Autism War: A Novel, which will be released in April, 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing.