June 30, 2004



Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.22 (June 2004)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.6

Minamata Disease as A Symbol of Distorted Modernization

People in Japan enjoy a convenient and affluent lifestyle dependent on oil for energy and for a wide array of consumer goods produced from petrochemicals, such as auto parts, personal computers and disposable diapers. This petroleum-dependent lifestyle is one outcome of the rapid economic growth brought about by the government's post-World War II economic policy, which strongly emphasized heavy and chemical industries.

In 1956, Japan's economic growth rate skyrocketed, and that year's Economic White Paper described the country as "no longer in the postwar period." On May 1st of that year, a hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan reported to local health officials that it had observed a patient with a central nervous system disease of unknown cause. Minamata Disease, said to be the result of the first definitive environmental pollution incident in modern Japan, had been officially discovered.

Minamata City, with a population today of about 32,000, is located in southern Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, facing Minamata Bay in the Shiranui Sea, an inland sea bordered by mainland Kyushu and the Amakusa Islands. The entire watershed of the Minamata River, which flows into Minamata Bay, is contained within Minamata city limits. This Bay was formerly known as a natural spawning ground for fish, and the people of Minamata were proud of its abundant fishing resources. Many local people made a living by fishing and growing vegetables in the foothills behind the town.

In 1908, the Nippon Nitrogen Fertilizer Co. Ltd., forerunner of the current Chisso Corporation, started operation in Minamata, contributing greatly to the region's employment and income. The company was originally set up as a hydroelectric power generation company, and then built a carbide plant that used the electricity. Eventually, the company shifted its focus to the production of chemical fertilizer, acetic acid, chlorinated vinyl and softeners needed for shaping plastics.

The company now known as Chisso started using inorganic mercury in 1932 as a catalyst to produce acetaldehyde, an ingredient of acetic acid and chlorinated vinyl, and for 36 years continued to dump untreated wastewater containing methyl mercury generated in this process into Minamata Bay. During this period, fish catches drastically decreased and the number of Minamata disease patients spiked. A confrontational situation emerged between local fishermen, who called for a halt to the wastewater discharges, and local municipalities aligned with the company, who were reluctant to take drastic measures.

Methyl mercury is a kind of organic mercury. It accumulates in the body after being absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and is delivered to liver, kidneys, brain and even to the fetus in a mother's womb. The accumulated methyl mercury mainly attacks the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as numbness in the legs and hands, ringing in the ears, and narrowing of the field of vision. Some acute cases during the early days of the disease's outbreak displayed symptoms of sudden insanity, unconsciousness and death within a month of its onset.

Because of the delay in implementing measures to combat Minamata Disease, the number of patients multiplied. The methyl mercury pollution posed not only a direct health hazard, but also deprived the people of their income from fishing and their will to live. In dealing with the recognition of and compensation for Minamata disease, patients also had to fight arbitrary prejudice and discrimination against them for having a "mysterious" or "contagious" disease, as well as unfounded accusations that they were malingering. Such friction gradually destroyed the social fabric of the town.

The Minamata issue was finally resolved in October 1996, 40 years after the official discovery of the disease in 1956, when five organizations representing the victims accepted a settlement proposed by the Japanese government. However, this resolution was only in terms of monetary compensation, and there remained issues of how the community as a whole should support disease victims, including those who are obliged to hide the fact that they have the disease, as well as how to deal with those who survived as opposed to those who did not.

The Revival of Minamata City as a Model City for Environment

In 1990, Minamata City launched the "Minamata Environment Generation Project." The city held numerous community meetings and workshops to discuss how to re-create the city in such a way as to ensure that the sacrifices of Minamata disease victims would not be in vain. The outcome of the discussions pointed to adopting a series of activities aimed at rebuilding the city by promoting environmental protection measures to balance out the environmental damage. The Japanese name for this project evokes the local practice of tying boats together (moyai), an appeal to Minamata citizens to start working together again.

In 1992 the city declared its intention to become a model environmental city, and it soon launched full-fledged efforts to build a city founded on environmental protection and utilizing the lessons learned from Minamata disease. Since then, the city has been working towards building a comprehensively environment-based city. The city has created the "Environment Minamata Award, " and certifies people who have created eco-friendly and health-conscious products as "Environment Masters." Local study groups that monitor what is happening in their immediate community have also been promoted. For more information about these study groups, please refer to JFS Newsletter No. 14 (October 2003).

Sorting Garbage into 21 Categories and Working to Reduce Waste

Minamata City started sorting waste into 20 categories in 1993, and as of 2003, garbage is sorted into 21 categories at waste stations located around the city. Their way of sorting waste is called the "Minamata method," and many interested visitors come from around the country to learn about it.

The volume of waste was initially reduced to half when the city first began sorting, but it then rebounded back to former levels. So, in addition to sorting waste, the city launched efforts to reduce its volume.

The Women's Network for Waste Reduction, a group of female representatives from 16 organizations such as women's associations, was established in December 1997, and has been developing and implementing systems essential for waste reduction.

The Network started by concluding a letter of agreement with major retail stores in the city aimed at eliminating disposal of polystyrene food packaging, and then started an "Eco-Shop" certification system for environmentally conscious stores. In addition, the Network convinced stores to stop offering disposable shopping bags, and it distributes reusable shopping bags for free to every household in the city. One of the Network's many other activities is environmental education on waste reduction through homemade story board presentations. The Network has been recognized for these efforts and received a grand prize at the Municipal Government Environmental Grand Prix 1999 and an incentive award as part of the "Genki Waste Grand Prize 2001," (Genki in Japanese means high-spirited or vigorous) organized by a nonprofit organization, the Genki Network for Sustainability. (Japanese only)

Collection of sorted food waste started in December 2002. Household food waste is collected by the city and composted at private composting plants. (Japanese only)

Minamata Acquires ISO 14001 Certification and Promotes Original Household and School Certification Program

Although acquiring ISO 14001 Certification has become a common practice for municipal governments, what makes Minamata City unique is that the city has also developed a simplified version for use in households and schools".

The environmental ISO process for households starts with a declaration of the family's commitment to create an environment-friendly lifestyle. Then family members select activities to do at home from a list of 35 items, submit a plan to the city, and keep track of their activities for review. Three months later, the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Minamata City and the Women's Network for Waste Reduction evaluate the outcome, and the mayor gives certification to households considered satisfactory. The certificate remains in effect for three years. (Japanese only)

The environmental ISO for schools has been implemented at elementary and junior high schools throughout the city since April 2000. School staff and students select five or more items each from a list of resource-saving, recycling, and energy-saving actions, such as turning off the lights in classrooms whenever possible. Participants keep track of their activities for review, and three months later the Board of Education and the Environmental Policy Division of Minamata City evaluate the outcome. The mayor and the superintendent of schools give certification to schools considered satisfactory. The certificate remains in effect for three years. (Japanese only)

This effort has expanded to childcare centers and kindergartens in the city, and many are now making efforts to acquire certification. The movement is expanding to other sectors, and versions of ISO are being created for the hotel and lodging industry and the livestock industry in the city.

In September 2003, the city switched to "Self-Monitoring of ISO 14001 Compliance" instead of the standard assessment procedures by external certification bodies. It also started a citizens' auditor system, in which citizens evaluate efforts by the city government.

The lesson learned at great cost from the outbreak of Minamata Disease is the importance of water and food as the foundations of life. Minamata City's present efforts show us that waste generated from households and businesses should not be allowed to harm nature. Minamata Disease is an environmental hazard that resulted from the pursuit of material affluence. It is our responsibility to convey this message to future generations.

(Staff Writer Kazumi Yagi)