|Industrial Pollution in Japan (UNU, 1992, 187 pages)|
|Chapter - 4 Minamata disease|
In June 1965, several patients who exhibited the same symptoms as seen in the Kumamoto Prefecture Minamata disease were discovered among fishermen living along the lower reaches of the Agano River, on the outskirts of Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture, a location far away from Minamata. This was the famous second Minamata disease, and methyl mercury was discovered in the victims' bodies as well as in the fish that they were eating. Along the upper reaches of the Agano River, and also in the area of the river mouth, there were two more acetaldehyde production plants. The second Minamata disease was recognized at an earlier stage and therefore there was a lesser degree of contamination than in Minamata, but even so, in the year of its discovery five deaths were attributed to the disease and 26 persons were designated disease patients. Even though mercury was very clearly the cause of the problem, the task presented to the newly formed Niigata University Medical Department research group in determining cause-and-effect relationships was by no means an easy one. In the areas surrounding the highly industrialized city of Niigata, besides the two above-mentioned acetaldehyde production plants, there were several other manufacturing facilities that used mercury; to add to the complications, mercury-based agricultural chemicals were also widely used, and therefore had to be considered as possible disease vectors. Furthermore, in 1964, the year before the discovery of the disease, there had been a major earthquake in Niigata, and it was suspected that there might be some relationship between that quake and the development of the disease the following year. In this way the research group ruled out, one by one, each of the many possible causation theories through the application of careful investigatory techniques. In the spring of 1966, the research group named, as the probable cause of the disease, the methyl mercury waste effluent from the Showa Denko Company's Kase factory, located on the upper reaches of the Agano River.
From this point on, in exactly the same manner as with the first Minamata disease, an identical course of events unfolded. The industry-related government departments evolved their own theories to counter that of the university research group, pressured the research group to hold back on publicity, and cut down on research funds. Scholars receiving trust funds from industry sources would produce differing opinions that resulted in support for industry. When university medical department research scholars were called before the National Diet to give testimony on the problem, high government officials would secretly try to have them obscure the cause-and-effect relationships. The situation was exactly the same as with the first Minamata disease. At long last, after a year of this kind of deviousness, research firmly established the fact that the disease was caused by the effluent output of the Agano River Showa Denko plant. Industry responded by indicating that even if the government found them at fault, they would not abide by any ruling. Furthermore, since the university research group's findings were a year-and-a-half old, and the government was still in the process of making its own determinations, the research group's findings could not be called official.
Among the Minamata disease victims who could no longer abide by the government's ineptitude and indecision were the extended Miike family from Niigata, a group who had lost more members and suffered more from the disease than any other. This clan decided to take their case to the civil courts in order to obtain reparations for the damage done to them and in order to establish responsibility and define the cause-and-effect relationships. These people, whose incomes were from fishing and farming, were among the lower social classes, and throughout their family history they had never gone to court, which for them was a place to be feared and avoided. But having no other recourse, they were forced to take this course of action, which for them required a tremendous amount of courage. As for the lawyers involved, this case required scientific knowledge in order to pursue litigation over the cause-and-effect relationships, and as such was a new and challenging experience. The lawyers entertained no hopes of success from the very beginning. This was the first time that an environmental destruction case had gone to court in the post-Second World War period. The lawyers were forced to study elementary chemistry from highschool textbooks, and, since this was the first such case, they sought the co-operation of scientists, and proceeded with the full knowledge that there would be a great deal of difficult scientific material to contend with, and that they could expect a powerful counterattack from corporation lawyers. After presenting their initial brief in court, the Niigata victims of the Minamata disease visited the victims of the Itai-itai disease (caused by severe cadmium poisoning affecting the bones) in Toyama Prefecture, and then met the victims of the Minamata disease in Minamata City. Through this they learned more of the history of environmental destruction in Japan and at the same time offered great encouragement to pollution victims all over the country. After this visit, the Itai-itai disease victims took their own case to court. In 1968, with the visit of the Niigata victims to the Minamata area victims, a citizen-based victim support organization was begun, and this organization has continued caring for Minamata disease victims up to the present time. At the same time, the First Chisso Minamata Chemical Company Labour Union, which had split from the original labour union in 1959, made a statement of support for the Minamata disease victims known as the "Shame Resolution." This was the first time in the company's labour-relations history that the union evaluated as "shameful" the action taken against the fishermen who had trespassed on company property. These various actions and movements by the victims of the Niigata disease brought many pollution-related problems back into the national consciousness after they had been forgotten for some time. The Minamata victims were encouraged by the Niigata victims, who were able to walk with pride even though they were diseased. The Minamata victims, supported by a citizens' organization that represented a small minority at the time, were then once again able to begin their own series of actions.