Minamata Case Study

In a country where the veneer of Government-ordered harmony rarely cracks, at least in public, Minamata has created a significant exception. A renegade Governor here on Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island, has openly broken with the governing Liberal Democratic Party and done what Japan said it would not: negotiate with thousands of people who say they, too, are victims of Minamata disease.

Then, in mid-December, a ranking official of the Environment Ministry directing the case committed suicide. His death is shrouded in mystery, with some colleagues saying he was overworked, but there is evidence that he was also distraught over the decision of the Enviroment Minister, who has since been dismissed in a Cabinet shuffle, to go to Minamata and talk directly with the victims.

To many, Minamata has become a case study in Japanese power politics, in the conflicts between Tokyo and distant Japanese towns and in the nature of the symbiotic relationship between the Japanese Government and industry.

"We talk a lot about how immature the Japanese political system is, how the national Government tries to control everything, including the courthouse," said the Governor, Morihiro Hosokawa, who as the direct descendant of the feudal lords who once ruled the region holds great sway here in his battles with Tokyo. "But there are few cases that show so clearly how perverse the Japanese system has become. So I decided to tell the Prime Minister that before you look up at the world's environmental problems, look down at your toes, where the problem is." Fishing Grounds Still Polluted

Indeed, the environmental disaster that struck Minamata has never really stopped. Though much of the mercury has been dredged from the bay overlooking the Shiranui Sea, the fishing grounds are still dangerously polluted and the fishermen, who numbered heavily among the victims, are gone.

Minamata's population has declined by a third, to fewer than 35,000, and most of those who are left are elderly. Young people who flee for the cities after graduating from high school say they go to great lengths to conceal their origins because elsewhere in Japan Minamata's residents are often regarded as "polluted," even if they do not suffer from Minamata disease.

"You simply cannot get a position in a company if people know you are from Minamata," said Tsuginori Hamamoto, a leader of one of the many victims' groups, who is himself confined to a wheelchair because of mercury-tainted fish he ate. "For young people, it is almost impossible to find a marriage partner." Bitter Divisions

Moreover, the town itself is bitterly divided. Mr. Hamamoto and other victims are constantly pressing for memorials and commemorative museums that they say would restore some dignity to the victims; many other residents want all reminders of the disease swept away in hopes that Chisso, whose factory still dominates the town, will invest further here.

Years of protests and sometimes even violence have splintered the victims themselves, some supporting Japan's Communist Party, which has provided them with legal aid that they could not get from the Government, and others arguing that the Communists have cynically used the victims to advance their own candidates.

Minamata's Government talks of turning the bay, now being filled in to cover the polluted seabeds, into an environmental park that will draw conferences and tourists. To outsiders, that plan seems almost like a cruel joke in a town that most Japanese go out of their way to avoid.

For Tokyo, however, the vexing issue is not tourists but the victims and alleged victims, who after a generation still refuse to drop their claims.

Their case hinges on the slowness with which both Chisso and the Government reacted to the mounting evidence that mercury poisoning was setting off the convulsions, severe birth defects, paralysis and loss of speech and hearing that rippled through the town.

Though fish that swam close to the plant were seen for years floating belly up, Chisso was not formally identified as the source of the poisonings until 1959, in part because the company, citing trade secrets, refused to cooperate with health investigators.

A commission to study the causes was dismissed when it reached an unpopular if obvious set of conclusions.

"The social situation in the town was such that the company could not be told to stop emitting waste water," said Masazumi Harada, a medical professor at Kumamoto University who has devoted much of his career to studying the case. "And people in Tokyo did not even know where Minamata was." Families refused to report that their relatives were dying from mercury poisoning, for fear it would lead to ostracism and be a cause of shame for generations.

The Government did little, refusing even to ban fishing in the bay until 1968, after another outbreak of the disease closer to Tokyo forced action.

Today Chisso's giant plant, which dates from the turn of the century, still dominates the town. It has shrunk to a fraction of its size at the time of the disaster, employing only 900 people, who now make much of the world's supply of liquid crystal, the organic material used to form numbers and letters on the flat-panel screens of calculators and laptop computers.

But the company is barely profitable, in large part because of a settlement it reached with several hundred victims and survivors in 1973. That settlement covered the most obvious victims, people like Mr. Hamamoto, whose muscles still visibly tremble, and it nearly bankrupted the company.

Now both the local and national governments, and Chisso itself, are facing court decisions that raise the specter of thousands of more compensation cases. Chisso says it simply cannot afford to pay. "We cannot survive without the Government's help," said Norio Ishida, the manager of Chisso's legal affairs department. 'A Rare Act'

The courts have effectively dismissed the narrow definition of Minamata victims long used by the Government, a definition that embraced only 2,900 people, a third of whom have died. That was a rare act for the Japanese judiciary. "I think everyone in the Government assumed they would win, as they usually do," said Governor Hosokawa. "They were shocked when suddenly the courts said otherwise."

Takenori Goto, a Tokyo lawyer who has spent most of his career working for the mercury poisoning victims, said, "The national Government's policy is that if the case drags on long enough the plantiffs will die."

It is difficult to tell what maladies are caused by mercury poisoning. "These are people who are completely different from the first patients, and the problem is whether they are truly victims of Minamata disease or not," said Akimori Ogawa, an official of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He is speaking of people like Masato Ogata, a fisherman who was six years old at the height of the poisonings, which killed his father in 1959, only two months after he first developed symptoms. The next year Government doctors tested Mr. Ogata, and their records, which were kept from the victims for more than 25 years, show they found 182 parts per million of mercury in his hair, a dangerously high level.

"My limbs and head still feel very numb," he said, "and parts of my body still suffer from spasms and cramps." But his symptoms are nearly impossible to trace directly to mercury poisoning. Mr. Ogata says he has given up fighting for recognition as a Minamata victim, out of frustration.

In recent weeks the Government has shown a few signs of giving in. It is talking about some additional medical care for those who claim they are victims, though the amounts would be small.

And in Minamata, many people just want the memory to go away, for fear that Chisso, still the town's biggest hope, will be driven into bankruptcy. It is a form of dependency that Professor Harada says has deep roots in Japan. "In the Edo period, farmers had to offer much rice to the feudal lord," he said, referring to the era that ended in 1868. "But not many peasants complained, because they thought they could not live without the lord. The same is still true."

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Between 1938 and 1968, the wastewater from Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory in the Kumamoto district of Japan flowed into Minamata Bay.  This wastewater contained mercury.  In 1956, a doctor at Chisso’s factory reported increased cases of individuals with nervous system damage, officially recognising the existence of what came to be known as Minamata disease.  Symptoms of the disease include seizures, spasms, loss of motor control, numbness, paralysis, sensory impairment and, in extreme cases, death.  The disease was caused by mercury poisoning occurring through the food chain; fish in the bay contained concentrated mercury toxins and when caught and consumed, the toxins were assimilated into the bodies of the people who ate them.

Minamata victims launched numerous legal actions against Chisso Corporation, the Japanese Government and Kumamoto prefecture.  A group of Minamata victims filed a lawsuit in 1969 against Chisso alleging corporate negligence.  The trial lasted almost four years.  The court ultimately ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and ordered Chisso to pay compensation to the victims.  As the number of victims continued to increase, the Japanese Government adopted a certification process whereby people were officially certified as suffering from Minamata disease based on a characteristic combination of symptoms. 

A former president of Chisso and a supervisor of the Minamata factory faced criminal proceedings in 1979 for causing death and serious bodily harm.  In 1979, they were sentenced to two years in prison; these decisions were upheld by the High Court and Supreme Court.  In 1995, the Japanese Government proposed a settlement plan to those who had not been certified with Minamata disease in exchange for them dropping all related litigation.  Many victims accepted this settlement.

The Minamata Disease Kansai Patients Association refused to drop their case.  In 1982, the Association sued Chisso Corporation, the Japanese Government and Kumamoto prefecture demanding recognition as Minamata disease victims and compensation for the damages they suffered.  The Osaka District Court in July 1994 ruled that neither the government nor the prefecture was responsible for the damage to the victims.  The plaintiffs appealed this decision in Osaka High Court which overturned the lower court’s decision and found that the defendants had failed to exercise their regulatory authority as required by water quality legislation and the Fisheries Coordination Regulation of Kumamoto prefecture.  This decision was appealed by the defendants to the Supreme Court which in October 2004 upheld the decision of the High Court.  The Court found that by November 1959, three years had already passed since the official discovery of Minamata disease and despite this development, the authorities had not prevented the residents from consuming contaminated fish and shellfish from the bay.  The Court found that the plaintiffs were entitled to receive compensation for the damage they suffered.

In April 2010, the Japanese government approved a measure to provide compensation to uncertified sufferers of Minamata disease.  This measure will allow for a lump sum payment to these uncertified sufferers who have not joined a lawsuit against the government or Chisso.  Chisso will pay ¥3.15 billion to three organizations of the uncertified disease sufferers who have not joined a lawsuit.

On 31 March 2014, the Kumamoto District Court ordered the state, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Chisso to pay ¥106 million in damages to three uncertified sufferers who sued them. In that case, the defendants denied liability for the allegations that the plaintiffs had contracted Minamata disease due to mercury intake.

- “Relief for unrecognized Minamata victims OK'd”, Yomiuri Shimbun, 16 Apr 2010
- “Japan to Compensate More Victims of Mercury Disaster”, AFP, 3 Jul 2009
- “Court orders damages paid to Japan poisoning victims”, Kozo Mizoguchi, Associated Press, 16 Oct 2004
- “Victims Not Ready to Close Books on Minamata Saga”, Sonni Effron, Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug 1997
- “JAPAN - Victims of Mercury Poisoning Settle”, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 1996
- “Japan Mercury Victims Get Court Award”, Los Angeles Times, 27 Nov 1993
- “30 Years after Mercury Poisoning at Minamata - Ecological Disaster at Japan Village Leaves Legacy of Suffering”, Michael Weisskoff, Washington Post, 10 May 1987

- Ministry of the Environment, Government of Japan: Minamata Disease - The History and Measures, 2002
- Soshisha (the Supporting Center for Minamata Disease): Brief Chronology of the Minamata Disease Incident and Activities of the Soshisha

 - Xs V Japan & Kumamoto Prefecture, Supreme Court of Japan, 15 Oct 2004

31 March 2014

Court rules in favor of three Minamata sufferers [Japan]

Author: Kyodo, Japan Times

The Kumamoto District Court… ordered the state, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Chisso Corp. to pay damages to three of eight unrecognized Minamata disease sufferers …[The] court ordered the payment of ¥106 million in damages, including a record-high ¥100 million for one of the three victims…[However], lawyers for the plaintiffs said they effectively lost because the court rejected damages for five of the eight plaintiffs…The eight are men and women aged 54 to 61 who were born in Kumamoto and neighboring Kagoshima around 1956, when health authorities officially recognized the existence of Minamata disease in Kumamoto Prefecture…The eight, who complain of paresthesia (a “pins and needles” feeling) in their limbs, had applied with two prefectural governments for recognition as Minamata disease patients but were rejected or left in limbo…Their lawyers argued that they had a history of mercury intake and contracted mercury-caused paresthesia. The defendants denied it...

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8 June 2011

Minamata resolution still elusive [Japan]

Author: Japan Times

The new redress steps for uncertified Minamata disease patients are not likely to lead to a complete settlement of decades-old disputes involving the mercury poisoning disease, panelists at a recent Tokyo symposium indicated. More than 40,000 people with the disease have applied for the assistance in the last 13 months under a special law stipulating that determining who should receive the benefits take no longer than three years...[A] doctor involved in the Minamata issue...suggests that the three-year provision could result in those people being abandoned, particularly congenital patients, who were hit by mercury in the womb and who so far have not exhibited symptoms...Minamata disease was caused by Chisso Corp. discharging contaminated wastewater into the sea from its chemical plant in Minamata. [also refers to Showa Denko K.K.]

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26 March 2011

Unrecognized Minamata victims settle damages suit with Chisso

Author: Japan Times

A group of unrecognized victims of Minamata disease reached an out-of-court settlement Friday with Chisso…the chemical maker responsible for causing the mercury-poisoning disease, over a damages suit at the Kumamoto District Court. The settlement involves the largest number of plaintiffs — 2,492 — among a series of lawsuits against Chisso and marks a major turning point in redressing the victims of the mercury-poisoning disease since it was officially recognized in 1956…Under the settlement, Chisso will pay a ¥2.1 million lump sum to some 90 percent of the plaintiffs as well as an additional ¥2.95 billion to the group. The central government and Kumamoto Prefectural Government will shoulder part of the victims' medical costs.

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12 January 2011

Chisso Sets Up Unit for Minamata Disease Relief [Japan]

Author: Jiji Press

Japanese chemical maker Chisso...set up a unit as part of a plan to make payments to victims of Minamata disease, a form of poisoning caused by its mercury waste. The wholly owned unit, JNC Corp., will take over Chisso's business operations by the end of March, allowing the parent to focus on dealing with the aftermath of the mercury pollution it caused decades ago in southern Japan. Chisso will take JNC public and sell off its stake in the unit to finance its payments to tens of thousands of victims...This is a process mandated under law passed in 2009 to bail out Minamata disease patients who suffer sensory disorders and other symptoms as a result of the poisoning.

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13 November 2010

Chisso submits spinoff plan to secure Minamata compensation [Japan]

Author: Japan Today

Chisso Corp, the chemical maker responsible for the mercury-poisoning Minamata disease, submitted a business reform plan to the government Friday, featuring a scheme to spin off all its business operations to secure compensation costs for patients. The Tokyo-based company, riddled with excessive debts, is aiming to set aside compensation money by spinning off its operations such as displays and other electronic components into a subsidiary...According to the plan, Chisso will set up a new company that will solely engage in business operations. The parent company will hold the entire stake of the new company and allocate dividends from the subsidiary to its payments of compensation and debts.

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16 April 2010

Relief for unrecognized Minamata victims OK'd

Author: Yomiuri Shimbun

The Cabinet on Friday approved a measure to relieve unrecognized patients claiming to suffer from Minamata mercury poisoning that may cover more than 30,000 people who had been regarded as ineligible for financial assistance. The measure includes a lump-sum payment of 2.1 million yen per person to unrecognized sufferers who met certain criteria…Chemical maker Chisso Corp., which is responsible for the mercury poisoning in Kagoshima and Kumamoto prefectures, will pay 3.15 billion yen to three organizations of unrecognized patients in the two prefectures who have not joined the lawsuit…

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30 March 2010

Minamata disease victims approve settlement [Japan]

Author: Japan Times

Unrecognized victims of Minamata mercury poisoning disease agreed Monday with the central government, Kumamoto Prefecture and chemical maker Chisso Corp. to settle a damages suit…that includes lump-sum payments of ¥2.1 million per person….

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19 March 2010

Unqualified Minamata cases to be settled [Japan]

Author: Kyodo News [Japan]

The government will accept a court-brokered settlement in a damages suit filed by unrecognized sufferers of Minamata disease, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Thursday…The proposed settlement terms were presented during the fourth session of court-mediated negotiations between 2,126 plaintiffs and the defendants — the government, the Kumamoto Prefecture and chemical maker Chisso Corp. — over a damages suit filed in 2005. A Chisso factory in the prefecture released mercury-tainted water into the sea, causing the disease…The government is working on rectifying cases involving people who do not meet the strict eligibility criteria for Minamata pollution victims...

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11 October 2001

Poisoning victims of Japan's mercury bay may be double previous estimates

Author: Hans Greimel, Associated Press

Poisoning from Japan's infamous mercury bay may plague tens of thousands more people than previously acknowledged, according to fresh research slated for release next week. The findings could increase pressure on the Japanese government to boost victim compensation as they refocus concern on an environmental catastrophe shadowing the country for nearly 50 years. The government officially recognizes 2,265 victims - 1,435 already dead - of the industrial dumpings at southern Japan's Minamata Bay, where chemical maker Chisso Corp. had been pouring tons of mercury compounds since in the 1930s.

Read the full post here

11 June 2001

Chisso Corporation lawsuit (re Minamata disease)

Author: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Between 1938 and 1968, the wastewater from Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory in the Kumamoto district of Japan flowed into Minamata Bay.  This wastewater contained mercury.  In 1956, a doctor at Chisso’s factory reported increased cases of individuals with nervous system damage, officially recognising the existence of what came to be known as Minamata disease.  Symptoms of the disease include seizures, spasms, loss of motor control, numbness, paralysis, sensory impairment and, in extreme cases, death.  The disease was caused by mercury poisoning occurring through the food chain; fish in the bay contained concentrated mercury toxins and when caught and consumed, the toxins were assimilated into the bodies of the people who ate them.

Minamata victims launched numerous legal actions against Chisso Corporation, the Japanese Government and Kumamoto prefecture.  A group of Minamata victims filed a lawsuit in 1969 against Chisso alleging corporate negligence.  The trial lasted almost four years.  The court ultimately ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and ordered Chisso to pay compensation to the victims.  As the number of victims continued to increase, the Japanese Government adopted a certification process whereby people were officially certified as suffering from Minamata disease based on a characteristic combination of symptoms. 

A former president of Chisso and a supervisor of the Minamata factory faced criminal proceedings in 1979 for causing death and serious bodily harm.  In 1979, they were sentenced to two years in prison; these decisions were upheld by the High Court and Supreme Court.  In 1995, the Japanese Government proposed a settlement plan to those who had not been certified with Minamata disease in exchange for them dropping all related litigation.  Many victims accepted this settlement.

The Minamata Disease Kansai Patients Association refused to drop their case.  In 1982, the Association sued Chisso Corporation, the Japanese Government and Kumamoto prefecture demanding recognition as Minamata disease victims and compensation for the damages they suffered.  The Osaka District Court in July 1994 ruled that neither the government nor the prefecture was responsible for the damage to the victims.  The plaintiffs appealed this decision in Osaka High Court which overturned the lower court’s decision and found that the defendants had failed to exercise their regulatory authority as required by water quality legislation and the Fisheries Coordination Regulation of Kumamoto prefecture.  This decision was appealed by the defendants to the Supreme Court which in October 2004 upheld the decision of the High Court.  The Court found that by November 1959, three years had already passed since the official discovery of Minamata disease and despite this development, the authorities had not prevented the residents from consuming contaminated fish and shellfish from the bay.  The Court found that the plaintiffs were entitled to receive compensation for the damage they suffered.

In April 2010, the Japanese government approved a measure to provide compensation to uncertified sufferers of Minamata disease.  This measure will allow for a lump sum payment to these uncertified sufferers who have not joined a lawsuit against the government or Chisso.  Chisso will pay ¥3.15 billion to three organizations of the uncertified disease sufferers who have not joined a lawsuit.

On 31 March 2014, the Kumamoto District Court ordered the state, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Chisso to pay ¥106 million in damages to three uncertified sufferers who sued them. In that case, the defendants denied liability for the allegations that the plaintiffs had contracted Minamata disease due to mercury intake.

- “Relief for unrecognized Minamata victims OK'd”, Yomiuri Shimbun, 16 Apr 2010
- “Japan to Compensate More Victims of Mercury Disaster”, AFP, 3 Jul 2009
- “Court orders damages paid to Japan poisoning victims”, Kozo Mizoguchi, Associated Press, 16 Oct 2004
- “Victims Not Ready to Close Books on Minamata Saga”, Sonni Effron, Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug 1997
- “JAPAN - Victims of Mercury Poisoning Settle”, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 1996
- “Japan Mercury Victims Get Court Award”, Los Angeles Times, 27 Nov 1993
- “30 Years after Mercury Poisoning at Minamata - Ecological Disaster at Japan Village Leaves Legacy of Suffering”, Michael Weisskoff, Washington Post, 10 May 1987

- Ministry of the Environment, Government of Japan: Minamata Disease - The History and Measures, 2002
- Soshisha (the Supporting Center for Minamata Disease): Brief Chronology of the Minamata Disease Incident and Activities of the Soshisha

 - Xs V Japan & Kumamoto Prefecture, Supreme Court of Japan, 15 Oct 2004

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