Photo/Illutration A scene from a virtual reality tour of the Minamata Disease Archives (Provided by the Environment Ministry)

MINAMATA, Kumamoto Prefecture--Forced to close or cancel on-site tours due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, exhibition facilities devoted to Minamata disease here created virtual ones so viewers can learn about one of the worst ecological disasters to have befallen Japan.

With a click of the mouse, visitors to the websites of the three facilities can take online tours of each one to view displays, even though exhibits are currently inaccessible to the public due to temporary closure.

The Environment Ministry’s Minamata Disease Archives, the Kumamoto Prefectural Center of Environmental Education and Information and the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum released the online tour services on Sept. 1.

“We expect far more people than before to enjoy our exhibitions through virtual reality, which we hope will inspire them to visit those facilities in the future,” said Takehiro Tsuchiya, a divisional chief at the International Information Section of the ministry’s National Institute for Minamata Disease.

Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by severe mercury poisoning, was first officially recognized in 1956 after residents in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, began falling sick.

The cause was later traced to the release of methylmercury in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory owned by Chisso Corp. that contaminated fish and other marine products.

All three facilities are located on a hill on the Eco Park Minamata’s grounds. In a typical year, 40,000 or so people visit as part of programs to reflect on environmental and social issues.

However, visitor numbers plunged to less than 10 percent of usual levels last fiscal year after the pandemic hit and steps were taken to restrict people's movements to contain spread of the novel coronavirus.

This prompted the operators to seek other ways to make the exhibits accessible to homes and schools during the health crisis.

The three facilities in June this year contacted the Virtual Reality Innovation Organization (VRIO), a Tokyo-based body that creates virtual reality images of museums and tourist facilities across the nation, to create virtual tours of the sites.

The VRIO decided to work on the project for free.

In mid-August, VRIO's representative director Shigeru Yokomatsu, 58, and other staff members spent several days shooting images at all three facilities, using a special camera to provide 360-degree views.

The virtual reality tours allow visitors to travel in any direction they like inside the buildings to view displays. Images can be enlarged to make descriptions for exhibits easier to read.