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close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)
close this folder2 Responses to Minamata disease
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWho are the victims of Minamata disease?
View the documentOfficial recognition of Minamata disease and the initial response
Open this folder and view contentsChisso's grip on the local community
Open this folder and view contentsNeglect in preventing the spread of disease
Open this folder and view contentsProblems associated with relief and reparations
View the documentHow the local community suppressed the victims
View the documentConclusions
View the documentEditor's postscript
View the documentChronology
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

How the local community suppressed the victims

The vitality of the local community in Minamata was slowly sapped by repeated failures to arrive at a solution to the problems of Minamata disease. However, it was also the local citizens who helped to drag out the process of settlement. Chisso held the reins of political power in Minamata but, in disputes with people affected by Mina mate disease, they could count on local residents to come to their aid. Workers from Chisso and affiliated companies turned their backs on the victims because they believed that their own livelihoods were threatened by any assault on the corporation. With a majority of the citizens behind them, Chisso commanded public officials and other local influentials. As a longestablished local institution, the company took advantage of their ties geographical, economic, and familial to the area and were able to suppress victims' appeals. Though their claims for reparations were relatively modest, protesters were effectively penned into an isolated group. For example, when fishermen protested to Chisso in 1959, the Mayor and Chairman of Minamata City Council headed a delegation of 28 groups that lobbied the Governor against stopping industrial discharges from Chisso because that action "signed certain death for the local community." They followed this up with a request for the prefecture to provide "ample defense against acts of violence" and implored the Ministry of Health and Welfare to ignore arguments that might implicate Chisso as a cause of the disaster.

Although victims' protests grew throughout the 1960s into a fully fledged social movement - complete with support from external interest groups Chisso's appeal to the existence of a "shared destiny" between the citizens and the company was a formidable obstacle. Even as late as 1968, when official recognition of the causes of Minamata disease had been secured, Chisso was able to bring together more than 2,500 persons representing 53 local groups in support of a concerted effort to rebuild the Chisso Minamata plant. At this time, the President of Chisso attempted to dampen the exultation of victims about the progress they were making in seeking commitments from the corporation by making a statement that "plant reconstruction depended on whether cooperation could be won from labor unions and the local community."

Again, in 1971, when local groups were battling in direct negotiations for reparation, the Mayor of Minamata pronounced that he "would defend Chisso even in the eyes of national consensus." (He later explained that he was forced to make this statement "for the sake of creating and maintaining jobs for the people.") Yet again, in 1975, Minamata City Council officially requested both the state and the prefecture to mitigate Chisso's burden of work for the removal of contaminated sludge from Minamata Bay. And once more, in 1977, an organization created and funded by the City Council campaigned to collect signatures in support of reconstruction of the Chisso plant.

In short, the carefully cultivated myth of "shared destiny" between city and company had taken deep root in the community. Opponents of "mutuality" were discriminated against and suppressed. The victims - not the disease - were now seen as the threat. They also became scapegoats for the community's problems. In this curious and troubling inversion of reality, Minamata disease itself became a taboo subject.

If something truly effective is to be done about the lingering impact of Minamata disease, a start must be made on fashioning a new concept of the community. The conception of "shared destiny" that served the interests of Chisso and many of its workers in earlier decades must be dismantled. It will be necessary to free the residents of Minamata from dependence on a single corporation and to diversify the economic foundations of the community. So far, existing approaches have not produced a solution to the ills that still blight the lives and landscape in Minamata. This alternative remains to be tried.