|Industrial Pollution in Japan (UNU, 1992, 187 pages)|
|Chapter - 4 Minamata disease|
The Medical Department of Kumamoto University, which in 1971 had begun making surveys in relation to a second outbreak of Minamata disease, instituted research on a broader epidemiological basis designed to provide predictions about the situation ten years into the future. Symptoms among patients in heavily polluted and more lightly polluted areas were recorded and compared. In order to compare these two levels of pollution, the research team also made a survey of the Ariakecho area. Here also, in spite of its distant location from the original pollution sources, people were discovered who had disease symptoms very much like those of the Minamata disease patients. Furthermore, there was no denying the possibility that there also could be mercury pollution in other areas. In May 1973, the mass media reported this fact, calling it the "third Minamata disease." With news related to PCB and mercury poisoning springing up all over Japan, the report of a "third Minamata disease" brought panic to the fishing industry. Between 1972 and 1973, just before the "oil shock" struck, Japan was at the peak of its high-economic-growth period and there was also extraordinary activity in the money markets; all these factors created a great deal of national anxiety. Also, because of the excessive overloading of petrochemical complex production capacities, there had been a continuing series of fires and explosions. Groups of local fishermen began to react by cementing up the sea-polluting effluent discharge pipes from various manufacturing plants, and the entire nation was subject to a great deal of social apprehension. The government of Japan could no longer ignore the great increase in environmental destruction. With the co-operation of selected medical professionals, the government began to make surveys of the general health of the people living in the most polluted areas, in order to deal with the fear and consternation that had been created by an ever-expanding circle of discoveries revolving around Minamata disease. The results of the survey indicated that 158 Minamata disease patients had been discovered in a sample of 50,000 persons. However, 114 of the 158 had already been designated Minamata disease patients, and later surveys indicated that even greater numbers than reported in the survey had also been designated as victims. Therefore, it came to be understood that this medical survey had been carried out only to manipulate public opinion. The survey doctors were told that the disease patients who came to be examined were only there in order to obtain reparations. The third Minamata disease patients were examined in this light and were recognized as victims only when they displayed typical and classic symptoms of mercury poisoning. Thus, through these procedures, a group of so-called medical professionals concluded that there were no third Minamata disease patients.
Within this context, organic mercury poisoning, as seen in the case of the Minamata disease, was understood not in terms of its effects on the whole body, but rather in terms of localized pathologies relative to specific target organs. Within the context of these new and yet unencountered medical situations, the medical profession was unable to make investigations on the basis of the realities at hand, but simply applied generalizations based on theoretical orientations derived from the work of others. This of course is a serious problem that constantly haunts the development of scientific methodology related to environmental destruction, as research is always limited to quantifiable phenomena. As a result, no meaningful surveys were carried out in relation to the problem of mercury poisoning.
The Minamata Disease Patient Examination Committee, which was instituted by Kumamoto Prefecture, was dissolved when the terms of the individual members came to an end (1974-1975), and this brought to an almost complete halt any attempts at designating Minamata disease victims. The results of this were no measurable increases in the number of designated patients. From 1975 onward, the work of the prefecture in designating disease victims declined, and even those persons that were considered either were treated as marginal cases or had their applications rejected. At this very time, encouraged by the successes of Kawamoto's movement, the number of persons who were applying for recognition and designation as Minamata disease patients was on the increase, and by 1975 there were more than 3,000 people seeking this kind of help.
In many instances, journalists for sensationalist newspapers would write articles about so-called fake Minamata disease victims. A good example of this was to be seen in 1975 when the chairman of the Kumamoto Prefecture Special Committee on Environmental Pollution made some remarks about non-genuine Minamata disease victims while visiting the Environment Agency. Because of his position as a public servant, his words carried a lot of weight and had a resounding effect on the mass media. In response to this irresponsible sensationalism, the Minamata disease victims staged a public direct action protest which resulted in the arrest and prosecution of many of them. This same kind of irresponsible agitation through the mass media was repeated both in central and local government-related politics, with many believing that there was a continuing effort to manipulate public opinion against the disease victims.
The effluent discharge from the Chisso Company's Minamata complex was halted only after the operation of the complex ceased owing to worsening profit margins. Under the depressed economic conditions of the time, a plan, funded through public investment, was proposed to remove several hundred tons of mercury-contaminated sludge from the bay. With the Minamata facility suffering from economic hard times, and the payments to disease victims ever on the increase, people welcomed this large-scale reclamation project as a way of refloating the local economy. But some of the Minamata disease patients were very apprehensive about the plan, for stirring up the sea bottom could easily cause an increase in the human suffering caused by mercury poisoning. With this opposition in mind, Kumamoto Prefecture' in cooperation with the university, formed a committee to determine the safety of the reclamation project. In fact, the purpose of the committee was to legitimize the project. An opposition group consisting of Minamata disease victims and local citizens sought a legal injunction against the plan, but the battle was lost in court and the reclamation of the mercury-contaminated area is now in progress.
The Chisso Company management, which was suffering under the burden of the large payments that had to be made to designated disease victims, was also experiencing further difficulties because of the depressed condition of the chemical industry sector of the economy. As a result, it gradually came to a point where it could no longer make payments to disease victims, and asked for help from public funding sources, asking the government to pay reparations to patients on a temporary basis. The government decided to loan money to the Chisso Company on condition that the prefectural government, backed up by the national loan office, issue bonds for the purpose and that the funds be raised from bank purchases of the bonds. This system of using publicly guaranteed funds to shore up private enterprise was much criticized, but for the next three years on an experimental basis, and then after that on a permanent basis, this system was operated.
In the summer of 1978, a Vice-Minister of the Environment Agency issued new guidelines for Minamata disease patient designation standards according to which disease designation would only be allowed in medically established high-probability cases and deaths would not be admissible for designation unless an examination found hard evidence as to the probable cause of death and the body was made available for research purposes. The disease victims recognized these moves as a governmental attempt to limit the number of disease patients when the number of applicants for examination was on the increase. In reality, after this change in the ground rules, the number of applicants whose cases were rejected greatly increased.
In 1973, when Takeo Miki, the Director of the Environment Agency, visited Minamata, he promised to make a complete survey of the epidemic area as a high-priority state project, and as a result the National Minamata Disease Research Centre was built in Minamata City. However, in the process of planning the project, Dr. Takeo Tamiya, who was a leading figure in one of the former non-functioning Minamata disease committees set up by the government, was once again made head of the survey project, and, as in the case of the former committee, the voices of the Minamata disease victims were not heard. As a result of these factors, the disease patients refused to cooperate with the work of the new centre. Although the centre housed the best and most modern medical equipment and facilities available anywhere, it was unable to function at all. As is very clear from this and many other examples, lacking the participation, recognition, and co-operation of disease victims, governmental action in regard to the Minamata disease has been and remains inept.