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Overcoming the Ghost of Minamata

Inquirer.net, News Feature, Fernando del Mundo Posted: Mar 04, 2009

MINAMATA, Japan Exorcising the ghost of Minamata starts with the young in this Japanese coastal city on Kyushu Island, where half a century ago it reared its ugly head and horrified the world.

Environmental protection is drilled in right from Grade 1.

At Daiichi elementary school, this means brushing teeth with a cup of water, eating everything in the lunch pack, cleaning classrooms using a bucket and dust cloth, turning off lights not being used, picking up litter and sorting out wastesall done with the glee of a child at play.

Pupils join volunteer community environmental squadrons, making sorties into neighborhoods to pick up garbage and sort it out twice a week for recycling.

The buzzwords are reduce, reuse, recycle.

No one throws around a candy wrapper, or a soda can, or a hamburger plastic bag as Filipinos do with wild abandon.

Here, residents are intensely conscious of their environment after the Minamata disease emerged in the midst of Japans postwar drive to become one of the worlds economic powerhouses.

In 1992, officials announced a program to make Minamata a model environmental city.

Mayor Katsuaki Miyamoto tells a group of visiting foreign journalists on a trip sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that the project is aimed at offsetting misfortune by fortune.

Essentially, it is collecting and separating waste into recyclable materials. From an initial three categories of gomi, or garbage, there are now 22.

There are 300 gomi stationsone for every 50 householdsin the city, each managed on a voluntary and alternating basis by residents.

Waste as resource

Says 49-year-old truck driver Mitsuo Imamura: I want to eliminate the word garbage and make everything recyclable. If the waste is recycled it becomes a resource.

Earnings from the materials are given to neighborhood associations to spend on their activities.

The citys initiative toward a zero waste society also means employment. Companies have been set up to do the recycling.

Women are active crusaders and have so far convinced supermarkets to remove plastic food trays for 100 items.

An environmental meister system has been devised, awarding manufacturers and endorsing safe and reliable products. Eco-shop certifications are handed out.

There are also programs to foster and maintain ecosystems and wildlife, protect the natural environment and promote coexistence with nature.

The city used to be a small fishing village in Kumamoto Prefecture, until Nippon Fertilizer, later called Chisso Corp., was established in 1908.

Minamata developed in parallel with the companys growth, its population booming to 50,000 in the mid-1950s from 12,000.

Dancing cat disease

Signs of the plague showed as early as 1946 in what residents described as the dancing cat disease, an ailment that caused cats to convulse wildly before they died.

On May 1, 1956, four people suffering from a strange disease showed up in the hospital run by Chisso. The hospitals chief, Hajime Hosokawa, had seen similar symptoms in a patient who died two years earlier.

Fearing an epidemic, the doctor notified health authorities of the new illness in the first official acknowledgment of what became known as Minamata disease that would awaken Japan and the world to the human and environmental costs of relentless industrialization.

Academic researchers in the summer described how quickly the unusual disease could kill.

In one documented case, a 28-year-old woman complained of numbness of fingers and impaired hearing and speech. She was subsequently hospitalized with muscle spasms, occasionally howling. She became semicomatose, later paralyzed and died seven weeks after she was admitted.

The researchers later announced that effluent containing heavy mercury, used in the manufacture of acetaldehyde and vinyl chloride, dumped by Chisso into Minamata Bay, was responsible.

The chemical contaminated shellfish, then larger fish, and, finally, humans.

All told, more than 2,000 people succumbed to the disease. Another 10,000 received medical treatment. Thousands more in later years complained that they, too, had been stricken and demanded compensation.

In a recent meeting with visiting journalists in the house of fireflies organized by activists, a 51-year-old woman who could barely speak claimed she contracted cerebral encephalitis as a fetus.

She had not been recognized as a victim, although her mother said her husband and oldest daughter were among the first known fatalities.

Disaster also struck the lucrative fishing industry.

In an effort to calm panic and stabilize plummeting fish prices, the prefecture put up nets in 1974 to close off the mouth of Minamata Bay and prevent the spread of contaminated fish.

Quarantine

The deepest part of the bay, where mercury content was highest, was enclosed with a metal sheet, dredged and the sedimentary sludge poured into a reclaimed zone.

The ground surface was then treated with a synthetic sheet and loam and covered with soil from nearby mountains to confine the mercury-contaminated sludge.

In March 1990, after 13 years and 48.5 billion yen (roughly $480 million), mostly shouldered by Chisso, the antipollution project was completed.

A parallel control system also was established, filtering effluents from factories before water goes into the bay.

The nets remained for 23 years, until they were removed in 1997 upon confirmation that mercury levels were below regulatory standards. Fishing resumed.

The disease was not without a social cost. It tore the residents apart as victims went after the company, then the citys largest employer, where their parents also worked. It also left a stigma.

Severe negative image

All the products made in Minamata were avoided, Miyamoto says. The number of tourists went down and people from Minamata were discriminated against when they tried to find a job or marry.

The mayor says victims turned against victims and townspeople against the victims for disrupting their lives. A severe negative image of the city pervaded, he says, dismal, cold and gray as widely publicized lawsuits followed.

Today, Chisso, regarded before as a sort of overlord in ancient Japan because of the residents dependence on it, is just a fraction of what it was in the early 1950s.

The company makes much of the worlds supply of liquid crystal, the organic material used to form numbers and letters on the flat-panel screens of calculators and computers. It is barely profitable because of settlement reached with the most obvious victims and survivors.

Minamatas population also has shrunk to around 33,000.

Never again

Since the outbreak of the disease, Japan has strengthened its pollution laws and the nation has become a leader in effluent control technology.

Koji Fukuda, president and CEO of Fukuda Farm Winery Inc., was a student in Tokyo when the mercury-poisoning scare broke out. He went home to his family estate on a hill overlooking the Shiranui Sea. He wanted to help the community overcome the disaster.

There, he built a Spanish-style village where his products are sold. It has become a thriving business.

He cites the example of the oyster to illustrate Minamatas transformation of a tragedy into an opportunity to do something good.

He says that sometimes sand enters its shell, causing much pain, but at the same time activating a process to transform the interloper into a shiny pearl.

This is whats happening in Minamata, he says.

On a reclaimed land in the sea where the largest concentration of mercury-laden sludge had been found now stands a memorial.

It was erected on the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of the disaster to console the souls of those who died of the disease, praying that never again should any tragic disaster be caused by environment destruction.

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