Minamata Museum Faces Decay

I first became aware of Minamata through a Dead Kennedys song and learning about it truly hit home. I was born in Midland, Michigan, home of chemical giant, Dow Chemical, who make, among other things, the ubiquitous Zip-Loc bag. Dow dumped toxins into the environment for years, poisoning the largely silent local populace, which would rather have jobs than health. Cancers are rampant in people from the area. For myself, it’s a fact that I’m conscious of every single day. My mother contracted stomach cancer at 26, and I have an uncle who fought leukemia as a child. Given the lessons that we should be learning from Minamata and Dow, it’s frightening to me that the American right would call for less environmental regulation and consider even basic environmental standards to be unAmerican and inherently anti-business. While the government in both cases was entirely complicit in these vast health disasters, we should be increasing regulation and encouraging greater transparency in environmental hazards, not lessening them.

Minamata’s history is this: throughout the twentieth century, the Chisso Coporation operated a factory in Kumamoto Prefecture on the western island of Kyuushuu, Japan. Chisso makes liquid crystal for LCD displays and televisions and continues to operate to this day. For nearly 34 years, Chisso regularly dumped methyl mercury into the water surrounding Minamata bay. In 1959, a five year old girl appeared in a Chisso factory hospital having difficulty walking , convulsions and slurred speech and days later, her sister showed the same symptoms. What happened after that, was a turbulent unveiling of Chisso’s pursuit of profit at the expense of human health and safety and a community torn apart by the seams, along with more than 3000 officially recognized cases of Minamata disease. Those who profited from Chisso and stood to lose by the unveiling of contamination, clashed with victims seeking compensation and an end to Chisso’s using Minamata Bay as a toxic dumping ground.

Given the complex web of complicity in the Minamata poisoning which includes individuals at every level of local, business and Japanese administration, it is no surprise that the Japanese government has been unwilling to pony up money to support the decaying supporting centerr for theMinamata Disease Museum. The City of Minamata operates the museum on a shoestring and cannot support even basic archival standards. Documents chronicling the event, it’s after effects and the long legal battles in it’s wake, are now beginning to rot, with some photographs showing signs of mold and insect infestation. Now, the museum, which arguably is a necessity to preserve the incredible struggles of citizenry against exploitation by big business, must find a way to raise funds to preserve it’s archives, not an easy feat in a sinking economy. The disappearance of these documents would no doubt be welcome to big business and rightist members of the Japanese government. What is forgotten, no longer exists and history then can be rewritten however one sees fit.

I leave you with the lyrics to the Dead Kennedy’s “Kepone Factory.” Mostly I find Jello (the vocalist) annoying, but these lyrics are right on:

“Kepone Factory”

I finally found a job in a paper
Movin’ barrels at a chemical plant
There’s shiny-looking dust on my fingers
Goin’ up my nose and into my lungs

It’s the Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata
At the grimy Kepone Factory
Turning people into bonzai trees

Now I’ve got these splitting headaches
I can’t quite get it up no more
I can’t sleep and it’s driving me crazy
I shake all day and I’m seeing double

Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata

Gonna go down your big metal building
Gonna slam right through your bright metal door
Gonna grab you by your sta-prest collar
And ram some kepone down your throat

The lawyer says ‘That’s the breaks, kid
Gonna gnarl and rot the rest of your life
If you don’t sue, we’ll give you a Trans-Am:’
That I’ll never drive cos I shake all the time

‘Cause of the Kepone poisoning
Minamata
At the grimy Kepone factory

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

2 responses to “Minamata Museum Faces Decay”

  1. Ferunando-Sama says :

    Interesting and sad. Did you know that in Mexico there is enough water to not have water issues but a great portion of it is contaminated, mianly by companies that relocated after EPA. As Dick Levins put it, Capitalism makes us sick.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    America is really good at exporting our problems to other places. We have laws that allow prosecution for sex crimes while abroad, but of course none that allow for environmental violations in other countries. It’s a great deal for polluters.

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