Minamata disease

From Academic Kids

Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include ataxia, sensory disturbance in the hands and feet, damage to vision and hearing, weakness, and in extreme cases, paralysis and death.



In May, 1956, four patients from Minamata, Japan, a city on the west coast of the southern island of Kyushu, were admitted to the hospital. The physicians were puzzled by the symptoms the patients held in common: severe convulsions, bouts of psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma. Finally, after a very high fever, all four patients died.

Mercury poisoning

The physicians were shocked at the high mortality rate for the new illness: it was found that thirteen other people, including those from small fishing villages near Minamata had died with the same symptoms, as well as local domestic animals and birds. It was found that a common factor of all the victims is that they all ate large quantities of fish from Minamata Bay. Researchers from Kumamoto University came to the conclusion that the malady was not a sickness, but rather poisoning by toxic substances. It became clear that the poisonings were linked to a production facility in Minamata making ethanal and PVC, a type of plastic, owned by the Chisso Corporation, a hydro-electric power company that produced chemical fertilizers. Speaking publicly against the company was forbidden as it was a significant employer in the city. Eventually, the medical research team reached the tentative conclusion that the deaths were caused by mercury poisoning through the consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish; mercury was being used by the Chisso complex as a reaction catalyst.

Public outcry

For years, Chisso Corporation had hidden its use of mercury from the public eye. On November 2, 1959, a riot by local fishermen destroyed Chisso Corporation property. This act of violence succeeded in bringing the matter to the Japanese public's attention.

In 1968, the Japanese government acknowledged the source of the poisonings and chemical dumping was finally halted.


In total, more than 900 people died in severe pain due to the poisonings. As of 2001, research indicated that as many as two million people may have been affected by eating contaminated fish. In the same time frame, 2,955 people had been certified as suffering from Minamata disease. Of these, 2,265 had been living on the coast of the Yatsushiro Sea.


Many solutions were sought to compensate the victims while not bankrupting Chisso. The first wave of compensations, settled in 1959, could not be maintained as new cases of Minamata disease began to appear. These victims and their families were not included in the original settlement with Chisso and therefore, did not receive the same compensation as those diagnosed before the original solution. So the newly diagnosed families began the quest to receive comparable compensation for their disabilities. One group chose to sue Chisso and therefore go to trial for their compensation. Another group sought direction negotiations with the executives of Chisso.

These direct negotiations in Tokyo were exhausting. On December 8, Kawamoto, a leader in the direct negotiations group, began by asking Shimada, a Chisso executive, to pledge in their blood to come to an agreement and treat each other as human beings. Shimada refused. The negotiations lasted through much of the night, ending with Shimada collapsing and being taken to the hospital. The Minamata patients were told to go home, and when Shimada was able to negotiate again, he would do so in Minamata. However, the patients remained in the Chisso headquarters. By December 25, only two patients remained in Tokyo, Kawamoto and Sato. Chisso Executive Director Kuga, approached them and asked for them to take some money and buy tickets back to Minamata. Kawamoto and Sato refused unless Chisso agreed to direct negotiations. They were thrown out to the unsightly tented settlement outside of the building.

After this, protests and speeches by the patients took place outside of the Chisso office building. Media coverage was wide spread and many journalists took the side of the Minamata victims. Patients were shown in wheelchairs at the protests and in newspapers. However, the stalemate remained.

Patients and sympathizers marched on the downtown offices of Chisso and attempted to march as far as the presidents office. They were met with iron bars blocking the door to the Chisso floor of the Tokyo Building. The patients used the bars to their advantages by building memorials to the people who had already died of Minamata disease.

Because of the mass of media coverage, the Japanese Communist and Socialist parties began to more openly support the sufferers of Minamata disease along with the Sohoyo labor federation. The attention of the media and political party officials allowed Minamata disease to become a widely known dilemma in Japan and because the minority population of Minamata disease sufferers then had a voice, it then allowed Japanese democracy to develop to a new level. Also, due to this open support by opposing parties, and the call from the labor union for Chisso to negotiate, the Japanese government stepped into action by the Director General of the Environmental Agency (Oishi Buichi) asking to be allowed to mediate the negotiations.

Also around this time, Governor Sawada Issei came to Tokyo to help in overcoming the impasse of negotiations. Sawada and Oishi both met with the patients, Kawamoto and Sato, and also with Shimada, who had returned from the hospital. Both parties agreed to mediate negotiations through Sawada and Oishi.

As the negotiations began, the patients opposed a settlement mirroring that of the first solution. They not only wanted equal and sufficient compensation, but also for Chisso to publicly accept responsibility for the Minamata disease.

During these negotiations and also talks of a compensation advance, 29 more patients were diagnosed with Minamata disease. These newest patients were more cooperative with Chisso and agreed to accept a low compensation of $570 each. This caused a split between the newly diagnosed families. It also took away much of the leverage the direct negotiation group had and gave Chisso an advantage. The division between the Tokyo group and the Minamata group brought up hard feelings. Those in Minamata had continued to work, while the protestors in Tokyo had received financial support from backers in Tokyo. Many of those in Minamata were facing continued discrimination, but also were being threatened of losing their jobs if they continued with the negotiations. Only four people ultimately decided to drop the negotiations

The patients reduced their demands to close to what the first settlement between Chisso and the original Minamata victims had been. However, Chisso still refused because of the lack of a ranking system for the severity of illness. Then the negotiations were officially suspended, due to Chissos unwavering stance.

Finally, the trial verdict came down in favor of the patients. The District Court found Chisso guilty of corporate negligence and ordered Chisso to pay $66,000 for each patient who had already died, between $59,000 and $66,000 for surviving patients, coming to a total of $3.44 million.

This gave the direct negotiations patients grounds to reach agreements. After days of agreements, Chisso agreed to pay $66,000 for deceased patients who were included in the group of newly diagnosed patients. This opened the door for the other newly diagnosed patients to be included in the trial settlement. Finally, on July 9, 1973, through the work of the new Environment Agency Director Miki, an agreement was reached. This proposal included the compensations based on ranking severity of symptoms, but also payments to the patients per year to cover living expenses, and payment of all medical expenses. The government also provides medical examinations for people living in the affected area. These compensations and actions are considered inadequate by many.

Democractizing effects

According to Timothy S. George, the environmental protests that surrounded the disease appeared to aid in the democratization of Japan. When the first cases were reported (or more accurately suppressed) the victims had no rights and were given no compensation. Instead, the afflicted were ostracized from their community due to ignorance about the disease; people were afraid that it was contagious.

While some doctors and government officials eventually discovered that mercury poisoning was causing the disease, and were able to trace the disease to the consumption of fish near the Nitchitsu factory which dumped the mercury, no action was taken to solve the problem since the fisherman and victims represented a poor minority without an influential voice.

The people directly impacted by the pollution of Minamata Bay were not originally allowed to participate in actions that would affect their future. Disease victims, fishing families, and company employees were excluded from the debate. Progress occurred when Minamata victims were finally allowed to come to a meeting to discuss the issue. As a result, postwar Japan took a small step towards democracy. One reason may be because after Japan's defeat in World War II, the factory was part of the new zaibatsu that was determined to be more important to the livelihoods of its poorest citizens.

Through the evolution of public sentiments, the victims and environmental protestors were able to acquire standing and proceed more effectively in their cause. The involvement of the press also aided the process of democratization because it caused more people to become aware of the facts of Minamata disease and the pollution that caused it.

Although the environmental protests did result in Japan being more democratized, it did not completely rid Japan of the system that first suppressed the fishermen and victims of Minamata disease.


Photojournalism by W. Eugene Smith brought world attention to Minamata disease.


See also

External links


de:Minamata-Krankheit es:enfermedad de Minamata fr:Maladie de Minamata ja:水俣病 zh:水俁病


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