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

Michiko Ishimure grew up reading few books worth reading, and perhaps the only notable literary work she went through before turning 20 was “Daibosatsu Toge” (Great Boddhisattva Pass), an epic multivolume novel by Kaizan Nakazato (1885-1944).

The writer and activist also loathed literary magazines that she received from the big cities.

Instead, she tried to create works based on a dialect that was spoken by elderly people in Kumamoto Prefecture's Amakusa, where she was born, and Minamata, where she moved as a child.

The dialect has unique intonations that sound like the speaker is singing.

Ishimure greatly admired the riches of the Shiranui Sea, which both Amakusa and Minamata face, and condemned the mercury pollution from industrial wastewater that devastated its environment.

She worked with sufferers of Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning.

A short poem demonstrates her indignation: "Though I think/ I should pray to heaven/ Heaven is/ Ailing."

With no answer from heaven regarding her prayers for Minamata disease patients, she wonders if heaven itself is debilitated, too.

Ishimure said she had learned from Minamata disease patients the philosophy of life, “nosari,” which translates as “a gift from heaven.”

Local residents took a bountiful catch of fish as “nosari” as well as the torment brought on by the disease.

“Don’t nurse a grudge against people who persecuted or discriminated against you,” their thinking goes. “Think of it as ‘nosari.’”

Minamata disease patients were determined not to hold a grudge against either Chisso Corp., a chemical company whose plant discharged the poisonous wastewater into the inland sea, or callous people who showed no sympathy for their suffering.

Ishimure was touched by the noble spirit of these locals.

When I heard the news of her Feb. 10 death, I again read the notes I took when I interviewed her a dozen or so years ago.

“Minamata disease patients think they are in a bad condition because they did not pray enough for the fish they ate, and they worship rocks and caves,” she had said. “Intellectuals from cities deride them as ignorant and bigoted, but I don’t think so. The patients have acquired wild wisdom that transcends knowledge.”

Ishimure also talked about the meaning of the title of her best known work, “Kugai Jodo” (Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow).

“I visited the homes of Minamata disease patients and saw the extremes of despair,” she said. “The only way out of the hell is to go to paradise. These were the days when I saw no ray of hope.”

Ishimure captured the soul of words that Minamata disease sufferers were trying to utter as they struggled to speak due to the crippling effects of the disease.

Throughout her life, she conveyed those unspoken messages to society.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 11

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.