Japan must pass on the painful lessons learned from Minamata disease, the nation's first major environmental disaster triggered by human causes, to our global neighbors, Kumamoto University Medical School professor Masazumi Harada told The Asahi Shimbun recently. Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by eating large quantities offish and shellfish polluted by methyl mercury from factory wastewater, was officially discovered in 1956. Thousands of residents in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture, were affected by the illness, and many people died. The government settled a lawsuit filed by sufferers 40 years after the illness was officially discovered. Excerpts from an interview with Harada follow.
Question: What have the past 10 years been like for Japan's environmental policies?
Answer: The Minamata disease lawsuit was resolved and politically settled in 1996.Now that a domestic environmental suit has been settled, people are beginning to think we would focus more on global environmental issues. Global concerns are also important, but I think in the past 10years, we have tended not to focus on more immediate problems, such as how to treat Minamata disease patients suffering today and how to build dams and nuclear power plants (to ensure local residents' safety). The past decade has also seen government offices change the names of their departments from the ''pollution division'' to the ''environmental-protection division,'' since giving operations a broad name such as ''global environment'' can help win research funding from the government and is also not offensive to any group of people. The fact remains, however, that a court settlement does not save patients' lives or relieve their symptoms. The only difference is that more patients are dying of old age now.
Q: Are you saying Minamata disease is not over?
A: Exactly. We know only a fraction about the fatal illness. We cannot even agree on how to medically define Minamata disease. We have not studied how Minamata residents were affected psychologically or how the community gradually broke down because of the illness.
Q: Why did you begin a college course this month on Minamata disease?
A: I wanted people to know that we have not seen the end of Minamata disease, despite much of society seeming to believe it is over. Chisso Co., the company responsible for releasing mercury from its factories (to make liquid crystals, preservatives, chemical fertilizers, synthetic resins and other products) was considered a model company that incorporated U.S. and European technology before any domestic rival and succeeded in industrialization. Minamata City invited the firm to operate plants in the small fishing town, which transformed it into an industrialized city. By 1955, about 30 percent of Minamata residents were affiliated with the company in some way. The head of Chisso's Minamata plant became mayor and the town seemed to believe it would cease to exist if not for Chisso. The city became economically and politically dominated by the firm and, in the end, the city's heart was under Chisso's control. The course analyzes what Japan's modernization and rapid economic growth really meant.
Q: What do you think about the environmental problems facing other Asian nations?
A: The most common trait is that it is difficult to see the victims. Rivers in the Amazon, Canada and China have been affected by mercury poisoning, but as with Minamata disease, there are few patients who look severely ill at first glance: People are clearly affected by mercury, but the mercury is found in small amounts inpatients' bodies or they are still in the initial stages of the disease. (The methyl mercury that enters the body mainly attacks the central nervous system and causes various symptoms, including numbness and unsteadiness in the legs and hands, fatigue, ringing in the ears, narrowing of the field of vision, loss of hearing, slurred speech and awkward movements. Some early severe victims of Minamata disease went insane, became unconscious, and died within a month of the onset of the disease.) Suffering triggered by environmental hormones and dioxins is also difficult to detect. The damage to humans has changed over the years: It used to heavily affect one particular region, but now it affects the whole world, but on a lighter scale. We cannot say one is more serious than the other, but I can say the current situation is more difficult to respond to. Unsanitary conditions and the existence of numerous harmful substances also make pollution difficult to pinpoint in Asian nations.
Q: What should Japan pass on to its Asian neighbors?
A: It would be useless to tell them our pollution problems have been solved. We need to inform our neighbors what caused such a tragedy and why--what we should not have done, when and where, and what we should have done. We need to tell them about our painful failure.