ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


January 20, 2009


To Start Where We Are --Restoring a Negative Heritage Using Social Capital

yoshimotosan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Tetsuro Yoshimoto, the president of Jimoto-gaku Network, a project adviser for Minamata Disease Municipal Museum

Minamata City is located in the south of Kumamoto Prefecture, at the prefecture's border with Kagoshima Prefecture. There are about 29,000 people or 11,000 households living in a land area of 162.87 km2. The prefecture is focusing on activities for the Environmental City, Minamata, and won consecutive first prizes in The Top Eco-City Contest in 2004 and 2005. Although people from all over Japan, as well as the world, have been coming to the prefecture to see these activities, it was not like this just a decade ago.

Regional Construction for Saying "I am from Minamata" with Pride

Minamata disease was officially recognized by the Japanese government 52 years ago, on May 1, 1956. Minamata disease is organic mercury poisoning, in which severe poisonous methyl mercury taken into body affects the nervous system, mainly the brain. Discharged water with methyl mercury from a factory owned by Chisso Corporation ran into Minamata Bay and it was enriched in the ecosystem. Because people continued to eat contaminated fish and shellfish, the condition developed. The disease not only claimed many lives and damaged health, but also separated victims from those unaffected, thereby destroying the regional society.

In 1968, 12 years later after the disease was officially confirmed, the government finally certified that patients suffering from Minamata mercury poisoning were the victims of an environmental disease caused by discharged water containing methyl mercury, and the government started aid. There are now 2,268 recognized patients. At the Supreme Court in 2004, it was decided that the government and prefecture were liable for the damage because they did not prevent expansion of the disease. Since then, many people have come forward seeking compensation, including over 5,000 individuals who have applied for official Minamata disease status and over 1,500 people who have started lawsuits.

People with Minamata disease have suffered from discrimination and stigmatization; for example, some have had personal relationships ended, while others have lost their jobs. When a young man was caught speeding on a motorcycle through Minamata City, he said that he was trying to rush through while holding his breath in order to avoid being infected. This happened about 30 years ago when such discrimination and prejudice regarding this disease was severe. At that time, agricultural products did not sell very well and hotels were empty due to a lack of tourists. Local residents were emotionally disturbed, anonymous documents appeared, there were some crank calls and verbal abuse became more common. All of these factors caused much distress among local people.

I was working at the Minamata City Hall and preparing my resignation because I felt that I could not stay there. However, Kumamoto Prefecture launched a solution to deal with the problems related to Minamata disease problems and to help the city recover in 1991. As I was assigned to the planning section, I began to tackle these problems after deciding to face them squarely myself.

I initially thought that we should identify the problems, as we often mistake the problems rather than the answers. People said that agricultural products did not sell very well because the patients carried on. If this was actually a problem, the answer is that the patients should not have carried on. However, patients carrying on was not a problem. Therefore, I started searching to identify the actual problems we needed to address.

I also aimed to restore the local environment in order to restore Minamata. I thought that the recovery of a pollution-plagued city was impossible without restoring the local environment. People who were born in Minamata did not have any choices but to live there. But they did have a choice to create a place to be proud of. I started to work on the project with such thoughts.

As a result, I identified two problems. One was to relieve the victims who asked for help while they were still alive. The other was to provide assistance relieve the offender, Chisso, which amassed large debts. If we did not save the offender company, it might have become bankrupt and the patients would not receive any compensation by the Polluter-Pays Principal (PPP).

Moreover, we had to consider social welfare, such as reasons for living or job satisfaction of patients who wanted to help society. Several fetal Minamata disease patients who were born with Minamata disease have recently turned 50 years of age. Why were they born like this, what is the reason for their existence? They cannot find the answers no matter how much they think about it. They found out that there are questions no one can answer. I was beginning to understand that people who live in Minamata need to coexist with irresolvable issues.

Learn from the Area and its Locals to Improve Vitality of Towns and Villages

I said that we aimed to recover the environment for a regional recovery; however, many people who were living in Minamata did not use the word "environment." The word is only used by people who are not related to real life in Minamata, such as journalists, NGOs/NPOs, experts and public officials. My mother, who is a farmer, uses concrete expressions; for example, "Will it be sunny tomorrow?", "Will we have frost?", and "The cherry trees have bloomed." If I ask her about the global environment, she will answer that she has never seen or eaten it. Therefore, I should consider my home and my village as my earth, and then act accordingly. I also think that people living in Minamata should think and act similarly.

Chisso flushed organic mercury into the sea, which then poisoned fish and entered human body. For people in Minamata, the most important things that are related to daily life are water, garbage and food. Thus, the city office obtained ISO 14001 certification and has attempted to lead by example with regard to environmental issues via activities such as protecting forests (source of water), efforts to reduce food trays and introduction of the eco-shop certification system to certify environmentally friendly shops. Although the environmental ISO system for schools is a simple management system, it spread to all primary schools and junior schools in the prefecture and became widespread to the outside.

The autonomous regional organization Yorokai supported such activities. This organization was established in 1991 and comprises individuals who take care of regional activities. The first thing we collaborated on was a discussion about the local environment. We asked them to talk about childhood memories and about what happened to the places where they used to play. We asked them to discuss what we should do if these places had changed.

This aimed to encourage people in the area to take care of themselves and their lives rather than depending on the authorities. Petitioning the authorities is like asking for the moon; it is the opposite of seeking things you can reach, or autonomy. Complaints have never made things better at companies or shopping malls. Therefore, I thought that we needed to stop complaining and work toward autonomy in order to restore Minamata.

We also started making a "regional resources map", which told us what was in each area of Minamata. There were some people who initially thought there were no regional resources in their area. However, when I asked what types of fish there were in the river or what types of food they could get on a mountain, they began to understand what we think of as regional resources, and added them to the areas on the map. In this way, we made the "regional resources map." This is one of the ways to rediscover local treasures.

When we researched where the water went, we found out that there were rice paddies located lower than agricultural waterways and farmers lived just above them. This means that water is vitally important to the landscape of the village. In addition, it enabled people to see where the water source was, and this created a pillar of the environmental assessment by the residents.

We patiently and carefully listened to the people living in the area and researched their lives, houses and villages. We found that we did not know as much about these things as we thought. It is important to get to know as much as possible about our surroundings in this process. Specialists, such as university professors from outside of the city, also came to do some research; however, external research does not help residents understand their area.

We residents may not be as good at conducting research, as we are not professionals. Nevertheless, it is important to research the local characteristics by ourselves. Only people who have done research get to know the area well. We worked on such research, cooperating with residents and people who work in the fishery, agriculture and forestry industries. The local residents now look for things in the area, such as nature and culture, and make good use of them in Minamata. We named this method jimoto-gaku (literally "study on local area" in Japanese).

Conflict to Creation

Eiko Sugimoto, who passed away in February 2008, was the only daughter of an "amimoto", someone who managed the net fisheries, having boats and ships and employed a lot of fishermen. When her mother developed Minamata disease, her family experienced personal attacks as a result of the social stigma; for example, her mother was pushed over a cliff, people threw rocks at the windows of the family home, and fishermen cut her family's fishing nets at work.

Her father also developed the disease. He died saying "Amimoto care about trees and water, and develop a love for people. Do not retaliate." Eiko lived with the belief that she would change herself because she could not change others. If we cannot change the world, then Japan, or Minamata, will change itself. She told us that the question was about Minamata itself.

What is Minamata disease? Although some people say that Minamata is dark and heavy, Japanese pickles become tasty as they are pickled in the dark under the heavy weight of a stone. Thus, there must be some way to produce some good from the experiences of Minamata. Otherwise, we cannot understand why Minamata is making so many sacrifices. We tried to create new values in this manner to lead to the current Minamata.

People who have been in conflict reduce the distance, talk about taboo subjects, Minamata disease, change the conflict energy to creative energy and accept their differences. In this way, people who are living in Minamata had to accept the Minamata disease incident and work toward restoring Minamata.

The perpetrator has to admit they have made a mistake and has to express regret before they strive to never repeat the incident. When perpetrators admit their failures in Japan, the Japanese media severely pans them, almost to the point where they cannot recover. That is way I am concerned that Japanese society cannot admit their failure.

In fact, I think Chisso has still not admitted their fault. Similar incidents have occurred repeatedly over the years, including the HIV-tainted-blood scandal. If nothing is done, similar mistakes will certainly happen again. In other words, a mistake made once is an error, but a mistake repeated amounts to negligence. A mechanism by which people express regret and work toward avoiding similar mistakes is needed.

When I talk about "jimoto-gaku" in many places in Japan, some people ask me what will happen when we conduct research. Instead, we should think of what we want, rather than thinking of what will happen. Our collective will makes the future. If you wait and see what will happen, tomorrow will be the same as today. After all, we must take responsibility for our own homes and our own lives.

I said that effectively utilizing local resources has created a new Minamata. New things are not born from nothing; they come from understanding the resources you have and how best to use them. If you consider a large problem such as environmental issues, you can only start with your own back yard. Everyone can look for utilizable resources; however, the combination is surprisingly difficult. A more open discussion of creative solutions to these problems is necessary.

In order to restore a problematic region to a desirable region, creativity in all aspects, such as industry, society and lifestyle, is necessary. I would like you all to become entrepreneurs who can creatively overcome problems. Then, I believe that you will be able to help develop a bright future for all of us.


Tetsuro Yoshimoto worked for Urban Planning Division, City Planning Division and Environmental Management Division of Minamata City, and then for Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, and retired in March 2008. Now He works for a project to create Minamata as a model environmental city, where citizens are conscious about the problems with water, waste and food while making efforts to restore Minamata. He has talked about the importance to change the conflict energy to creative energy for the Environmental City, Minamata. He is promoting jimoto-gaku -- an activity to study on local area with a help of perspective of people outside, and think and create a new lifestyle and culture -- while helping its implementation home and abroad. His books include My Jimoto-gaku -- Message from Minamata.