Minamata’s latest chapter

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the official recognition of Minamata disease, a symbol of postwar industrial pollution in Japan. But the episode of massive organic mercury poisoning is not a thing of the past. On Aug. 11, a group of 100 people who have not been officially recognized as sufferers of the disease filed a lawsuit against the central government, four prefectural governments and Chisso Corp., seeking 850 million yen in damages, or 8.5 million yen for each.

They make up a sixth group of plaintiffs in a continuing lawsuit, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to more than 1,000. An additional 4,300 people have applied to local governments for official recognition as Minamata disease victims. So there are many more potential plaintiffs.

A report on Minamata disease, submitted by an experts’ forum to then Environment Minister Yuriko Koike on Sept. 19, said it is urgent that the central government take the initiative in establishing a new, permanent framework to aid all Minamata disease victims, including unrecognized and latent victims. The government should heed the proposal and put it into effect as soon as possible.

The forum, headed by Mr. Akito Arima, a former professor of physics and president of the University of Tokyo and a former education minister, started its work in May 2005. It took a severe view of central and local government inaction in connection with Minamata disease. The report said the disease, a direct result of industrial pollution, followed the “worst” failures by the central and local governments thus far in the postwar period. It said they neither prevented or contained the disease, nor provided adequate relief to victims. The statement, based on the historical record, should serve as a lesson that government officials should keep in mind all the time.

The forum, in making concrete proposals, correctly addressed Minamata disease from the perspective of Japan’s postwar history. In addition to upholding the polluters-pay-principle in compensating industrial-pollution victims, the report deemed the Minamata disease sufferers as victims of postwar Japan’s high economic growth policy — from which a majority of the people have benefited. Therefore, it said, the government should allocate money from the general budget account to relief measures for Minamata disease patients.

In view of the historical background, the report also said the Environment Agency as well as the Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry should be involved in pushing relief measures for Minamata disease sufferers.

On May 1, 1956, a local public health center in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, reported a “strange disease” afflicting four people who showed symptoms of an unexplained brain disorder. Minamata disease officially surfaced that day. The disease was caused by methyl mercury released by chemical maker Shin-Nippon Chisso Hiryo KK, the predecessor of Chisso Corp., into Minamata Bay.

Many people in Kumamoto Prefecture and adjacent Kagoshima Prefecture who ate fish contaminated by organic mercury developed the disease. Some people were born with the disease. In 1965, people with similar symptoms were found along Agano River in Niigata Prefecture (Second Minamata disease). It took more than 10 years before the government recognized that the cause of Minamata disease was industrial pollution.

The report proposed turning the city of Minamata and its adjacent areas into a model city dedicated to improvement of people’s welfare and promotion of environmental protection. In this context, it called for medical relief measures for Minamata disease patients, especially for those born with the disease. The Environment Ministry is requesting 3.6 billion yen for fiscal 2007 to finance Minamata disease-related projects. That represents an increase of 1 billion yen from fiscal 2006.

Despite its meaningful arguments and proposals, though, the report failed to call for a review of the government’s 1977 criteria for recognizing Minamata disease victims, which have been criticized as too severe. An October 2004 Supreme Court ruling, which spelled out more lenient criteria, has prompted a move to question the government’s criteria. The top court ruled that a person with even a single symptom of mercury poisoning should be recognized as a Minamata disease victim if he or she meets certain conditions.

Environment Agency officials pressured the forum not to call for a review, saying that any change in the criteria would sow confusion in the relief policy for Minamata disease victims. If the ministry cannot endorse a review of the criteria, it should at least implement the forum’s proposals quickly.