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50 years later, mercury still takes toll in Japan

Itsuko Mori and her husband, Akinori, cleared their nets during a morning of fishing in Minamata Bay. Both are suffering from symptoms of mercury poisoning, painful hand and leg aches, and loss of feeling and coordination. Itsuko Mori and her husband, Akinori, cleared their nets during a morning of fishing in Minamata Bay. Both are suffering from symptoms of mercury poisoning, painful hand and leg aches, and loss of feeling and coordination. (DAVID GUTTENFELDER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SHIRANUI SEA, Japan - The dawn is still only a faint glow beyond distant mountains, but fisherman Akinori Mori and his wife, Itsuko, are already hard at work on their boat, reeling in nets of squid, fish, and crabs.

Nothing about this placid scene shows that Japan's worst environmental disaster unfolded here. Starting 50 years ago, whole neighborhoods were poisoned by mercury-contaminated fish from these waters. Thousands of people were crippled, and hundreds died agonizing deaths. Babies were born with horrifying deformities.

Today, the disaster known as Minamata Disease is only a dim memory to the rest of the world, and few outside Japan would recognize Chisso Corp. as the company that polluted Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea with deadly methylmercury.

But for Akinori, 62, and Itsuko, 58, and many others living along these craggy coasts, the disaster never ended. His father and both her parents suffered the ravages of the disease: blinding headaches, crippling loss of sensation in their limbs, insomnia, and dizzy spells.

Both Akinori and Itsuko increasingly feel the disease in their own bones as they age, painful hand and leg aches and loss of feeling and coordination from eating tainted fish as children.

"Now it's starting in my hands and fingers," said Itsuko as she picked strips of seaweed from her nets in the morning sun. "They're turning white and are all bent."

Like the Moris, Japan has never fully recovered. Indeed, the disease played a large role in creating the Japan of today, giving birth to the environmentalist movement here. And like the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, the disaster became an international cause.

It also forced the country to face up to the price of the industrial miracle it built out of the wreckage of World War II, encouraged other victims of such negligence to sue for redress, and forced authorities to be much more attentive to protecting the public from the mistakes of Japan Inc.

But the struggle is far from finished. At least 2,000 victims have died. Even now, courts are forcing the government to recognize more victims, which some estimate at as many as 30,000. Many are confined to wheelchairs or bed, complaining that diagnosis and treatment are inadequate.

Lawsuits continue, but the government refuses to conduct an epidemiological study to determine the full scope of poisoning.

From the beginning, Minamata Disease was a malady no one wanted to talk about. Victims hid, shunned by neighbors who feared the illness was contagious. Fishermen suffered in silence, terrified that word of the disease would wreck their livelihood.

Economics insulated the culprit from blame for dumping methylmercury during production of the chemical acetaldehyde, used to manufacture products including pharmaceuticals.

In the 1950s, Chisso was a shining triumph in Japan's push for postwar economic development, and it held both bureaucrats and Minamata locals in awe. For more than a decade, the company refused to accept responsibility for the poisoning.

Bent on industrial growth at any cost, the government did what it could to keep news of the disease quiet. Chisso rerouted its wastewater to try to hide the source of the poisoning, thereby polluting a much larger area. The company continued to dump mercury in the waters until 1968.

"The whole country was so caught up in high growth . . . that it was easy to overlook things," said Timothy George, a historian at the University of Rhode Island and author of "Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan."

Chisso first offered "sympathy money" to small numbers of victims and fishing cooperatives in 1959, though it denied culpability. After the government declared the company at fault, Chisso had to pay much larger compensation in the 1970s. Additional victims received money in the 1990s.

Still, critics say the collusion between government and industry continues. The government, for instance, severely limited the number of victims eligible for the largest of the compensation packages - only 2,960, including nearly 700 from a separate mercury poisoning case involving a different company in northern Japan. Of those, 2,078 have died.

The legal battle continues. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the government was responsible for the spread of the disease.

Since then, an additional 12,000 people have become eligible for medical assistance, though not full certification, and the government is working on a plan to expand compensation to more than 5,000 others demanding recognition.

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