During the era of Japan’s rapid and strong economic growth, most Japanese companies--in their blatant, singled-minded pursuit of profits--failed to make serious efforts to prevent their operations from causing environmental damage.

The government turned a blind eye to this widespread environmental negligence in that period, which started in the mid-1950s and lasted for two decades.

The nation’s cavalier attitude toward the environmental impact of corporate activities led to a proliferation of pollution, resulting in massive losses of life and serious damage to the health of many people.

The painful memories of public health disasters caused by industrial pollution should not be allowed to simply fade away.

March 9 marked the 50th anniversary of the filing of a damages lawsuit against Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co., which operated the Kamioka lead and zinc mine located in the upper reaches of the Jintsugawa river. The suit was launched by patients of Itai-Itai disease and the families of people who died due to the mass cadmium poisoning that occurred in areas along the river in Toyama Prefecture.

People who consumed food polluted by cadmium included in liquid waste from the mine suffered serious health problems, particularly severe pain. Another key symptom is the softening of the bones. In serious cases, even slight movements of the body such as turning over in bed can cause bone fractures.

The name of the disease comes from the fact that patients often complained, “Itai, itai” (it hurts, it hurts).

About 200 people have been officially recognized as patients of the disease by the prefecture. Most have died, but a few are still fighting the disease.

We need to take this opportunity to renew our commitment to the indisputable principle that protecting people’s health and the environment should be given a higher priority than economic activity.

In 1961, a local doctor said that cadmium was the cause of the disease. But the government failed to make any serious attempt to check the validity of the claim for two years.

Since the waters of the Jintsugawa became cloudy, farmers demanded measures to purify wastewater from the mine upstream from the river.

But the company refused to take any action. On March 9, 1968, seven years after the doctor’s announcement, local residents launched a class action suit against the mine operator. Two months later, the government recognized the disease to be caused by pollution, at long last.

The company promised compensation and remedial measures such as soil decontamination after an appeals court ruled against it in 1972.

Following its legal defeat, the firm allowed victims to enter the mine and took steps to prevent pollution.

If the company had heeded the voices of local residents and taken effective environmental measures earlier, the health disaster would have been smaller in scale. This is one lesson that should be gleaned from the episode and kept alive.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the nation’s so-called "Four Big Pollution Diseases" occurred, including Minamata disease (in Kumamoto and Kagoshima Prefectures), Niigata Minamata disease (in Niigata Prefecture) and Yokkaichi Asthma (in Mie Prefecture).

One common factor behind all these cases is the refusal by the companies blamed for the disasters to recognize their responsibility until they lost damage suits filed by sufferers.

Five decades ago, Japan became the world’s second largest economy in terms of gross national product. But the spectacular economic expansion came at a huge cost--endemic pollution due to wastewater and soot from factories that damaged people’s health.

Repairing disastrous damage done to the environment requires an enormous amount of time and effort.

It took some 40 years to decontaminate about 1,680 hectares of farmland polluted by cadmium in areas along the Jintsugawa river. The work was finally completed six years ago.

Companies must make every possible effort to ensure that their operations, either at home or abroad, will not cause pollution.

It is not easy to dismiss the profit-focused, corporate mind-set, which fails to place the highest value on life and nature, as simply a thing of the past.

Industrial pollution was created by the human race. The important lessons from this dark chapter of Japan’s postwar history should be widely shared and handed down for rightful actions today so that we will never cause such a tragedy again.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 22