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Victims Not Ready to Close Books on Minamata Saga

Asia: Japanese officials contend mercury-tainted bay is now safe. But ill residents say their ordeal isn't over.

August 10, 1997|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINAMATA, Japan — When Shinobu Sakamoto labors to produce speech from her poison-twisted body, her hands flutter like wounded birds, her right eye rolls upward and her mouth contorts with effort. She needs a friend to translate some of the ensuing sounds into language a stranger can understand.

The process is slow and obviously exhausting, but Sakamoto is undaunted. She is angry and wants to be heard.

Born 41 years ago in Minamata, on the western coast of the island of Kyushu, to a fisherman and his wife, Sakamoto was poisoned in the womb when her mother ate mercury-contaminated fish. An older sister died, convulsing in agony, at age 5; both of Sakamoto's parents also suffer from what is now known around the world as "Minamata disease."

Their horrifying symptoms were later found to have been caused by mercury-laden effluent dumped into Minamata Bay by the Chisso Corp. chemical firm in what remains Japan's worst environmental health disaster.

After more than 1,000 deaths, decades of lawsuits that were settled only last year and a huge cleanup effort that has cost more than $342 million, authorities have now declared Minamata Bay safe for fishing once more. Mercury concentrations in the mud and fish have dropped to within government safety limits, and the steel net that was stretched across the mouth of the contaminated bay in 1977 will be removed, perhaps as early as this month, officials said.

Over the past two decades, the 1.3-mile-long net has become a symbol of the ecological disaster. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the net has done little to contain the mercury contamination because fish and mud easily pass through its 4-inch holes. But it did succeed in persuading a panicky public not to shun fish taken from other waters of the Shiranui Sea.

The July 29 announcement by Kumamoto prefecture Gov. Joji Fukushima that the bay's ecology is now "in great shape," and the impending removal of the net, is seen by some as the final chapter in the ghastly Minamata saga.

Many believe that Minamata's legacy was to put an end to the period of Japanese industrial policy that a Kumamoto court once defined as "profits first and human life last."

Merchants, farmers and other residents of this lush, lovely city of 33,000 also hope to close the books on the disaster and rebuild Minamata's shattered economy and reputation. The very name "Minamata" still causes many Japanese to shudder, and residents unaffected by the mercury have been stigmatized.

"There has been a long history of discrimination against Minamata--the image that not just its fish, but its daikon [Japanese radishes], mikan [oranges] and green tea were tainted," said Kunio Endo of the Minamata Disease Center Soshisha, one of several victims groups. "Of course there was no contamination of agricultural products. . . . But when you say something is from Minamata, it won't sell. It's extremely unjust."

But more than 11,300 people who say they have suffered from mercury poisoning are still living, and the long-term effects on the local ecology and population have yet to be studied, activists said. They warn that it is too soon to declare Minamata's ordeal over. "It's won't end as long as we are alive," Sakamoto said.

Some Minamata residents and environmental activists also expressed doubts about whether fishing in Minamata Bay is really safe--and how well Japan has mastered the lessons of Minamata.

Although Japan adopted some of the tightest standards in the world to avert many kinds of industrial pollution in the wake of the Minamata tragedy, environmental activists say the regulations still have glaring gaps. Japan, for example, adopted formal emission standards for dioxins only this year--a decade after strict regulation of the carcinogenic chemicals was adopted in the United States and Western Europe, said Teiichi Aoyama of the Environmental Research Institute in Tokyo.

"When you look at how much people have learned from Minamata, you must say that people understand it intellectually, but their behavior has not changed much," Aoyama said.

Government action on critical environmental issues has come about only under extreme pressure from citizen movements, activist scientists and the media, he said.

The symbiosis of bureaucrats and business has also played a role, with the powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry lobbying the Environmental Agency to help protect manufacturers from burdensome environmental regulation, Aoyama said.

Collusion between powerful bureaucrats and big business has long been a complaint in Minamata, which was a Chisso-run company town, say activists who struggled unsuccessfully for a decade to persuade the government to order Chisso to stop dumping waste into the bay. That legacy of mistrust has made some residents unwilling to accept assurances that the Minamata fish are safe.

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