Photo/IllutrationMichiko Ishimure in 2013 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KUMAMOTO--Japanese activist Michiko Ishimure, who won acclaim for her literary works about Minamata mercury poisoning disease patients, died of complications from Parkinson's disease here Feb. 10. She was 90.

Ishimure was born in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, in southern Japan, but her family moved to Minamata soon afterward. She made it her life's work to raise public awareness about the toxic industrial pollution caused by chemical maker Chisso Corp.

As Ishimure was growing up, she gained recognition for her talent to compose tanka short poems. This led to her joining a group of poets and labor movement activists, known as Circle Mura (village) in 1958.

Ten years later, she joined a citizens group that advocated relief measures--health and financial--for sufferers of Minamata disease mercury poisoning caused by tainted water discharged into Minamata Bay, upon which local residents relied as a food source.

That same year, 1968, the government pinned the blame on Chisso for causing the neurological disease that causes lack of vision, numbness in limbs and birth defects. It affected tens of thousands of people.

Her book on Minamata disease patients “Kugai Jodo” (Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow) and published in 1969 was an indictment of postwar Japan's relentless pursuit of industrialization at the expense of its people and the environment.

In 1973, she won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for her efforts to shed light on the insidious disease.

From the outset, Ishimure sided with victims of the disease battling discrimination because of their illness. She adopted the issue as her cause celebre even before Japanese health authorities recognized the existence of the ailment in 1956.

Ishimure became aware that something was not right in Minamata around 1955 when she heard rumors of cats in coastal areas behaving strangely, such as jumping into the water to die or bending forward with their noses touching the ground and moving around in circles.

Her quest to locate felines displaying odd symptoms led to an encounter with the family of someone with Minamata disease, which fueled her hunger to learn more.

She keenly observed the devastating effects of the disease while accompanying the late Masazumi Harada, a doctor who made house calls to treat sufferers.

Local calls of recrimination against Chisso and cries for redress long went unanswered as the chemical manufacturer was the main provider of jobs and revenue for the city.

The first installment of what later became known as “Kugai Jodo” was carried in a publication of Circle Mura under the title of “Kibyo” (A puzzling disease) in 1960.

Ishimure continued to write about the ordeal facing Minamata disease patients in serial form in a local magazine.

Ishimure wrote that she had tried to capture the inaudible words of patients deprived of their ability to speak, saying it felt as if their souls were reaching out to her to reveal the truth.

“I tried to give a voice to what the patients wanted to say, but could not,” Ishimure said.

The book was critically acclaimed and selected for the prestigious Soichi Oya nonfiction prize, but she declined to accept the award.

“I do not feel like receiving it, considering the fact there are still people who are suffering,” she said at the time.

Ishimure blamed Japan’s postwar economic miracle for spawning legions of people who were blind to the devastating cost of industrialization. In this regard, she was fond of citing the pollution of marine resources that stripped fishermen of their livelihoods.

On the other hand, she viewed Minamata disease patients as a presence to make people think about the way things should be.

“These are people who are pursing the question of life, the soul and the way the world ought to be in spite of the acute pain they suffer,” she said in 2005. “Their presence is so sublime that it purifies everybody around them.”

Ishimure had been afflicted with Parkinson's disease for years and was living in a home for the elderly when she died.

Fujie Sakamoto, who passed on the disease to her child while it was still a fetus and became a leading figure in a group lawsuit against the manufacturer and the Japanese government, lauded Ishimure for championing Minamata disease patients from the word go.

“There was a time when victims were forced to live as if in hiding until Chisso’s responsibility was determined," Sakamoto, 92, recalled, adding that nobody knew for sure that methyl mercury discharged by Chisso was to blame and the disease was not contagious.

“Ishimure and others had been our ally since that time. She was our biggest supporter, and she was determined to let the world know about the disease. I just want to say thank you to her.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Masamitsu Oku, Hisatoshi Tanaka and Yoshihisa Uehara.)