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Movie of The Week: Minamata: The Victims and their World (水俣ー患者さんとその世界, 1971)

Documentary director Noriaki Tsuchimoto presents an honest and bleak portrait of the victims of Minamata disease. In 1956, it became known that the Chisso corporation had been dumping methyl-mercury into local waters. As a result of eating fish poisoned by the pollutants, several residents of the vicinity of Minamata developed extensive health problems. Deterioration of brain and nerve function, along with congenital birth defects ruined the lives of more than 200 residents. Many more victims likely exist, but as stigma around the disease increased, many were afraid to admit that their afflictions were actually due to Minamata disease.

Tsuchimoto interviews several residents, from a fisherman who after years of therapy was able to finally walk in a straight line, to children born with the disease who face lifelong impairments, to troubled and afflicted adults, who have been shunned by their communities. The extensive political controversy surrounding an economically struggling community plays a major role in Tsuchimoto’s documentary, with many residents afraid to speak out due to the communities dependence on Chisso manufacturing, and the burden of an intense social shame in a conservative culture which often blames the victims for the plight of the community.

Minamata: The Victims and their World is filmed entirely in 16mm black and white, silent film stock with audio manually synced. The result is an immediate and disturbing series of snapshots of the community, which make their plight and anger seem almost unreal, but impossible to ignore.

This incredible document of one of the most famous and terrible examples of corporate disregard for human health culminates in an unforgettable scene of the Minamata victims trip to the annual shareholders meeting of Chisso in Osaka, Japan. A victims group realized that they could become shareholders merely by owning one share of stock, which would gain them access to the annual meeting, of which the Chisso management would be present. Victims dressed in white with slogans drawn on their clothing, disrupt the meeting through Buddhist chants and loud demands to be heard. The incredible scene of the small against the big quickly degenerates into a riot, with Minamata supporters directly confronting the Chisso management in front of an army of media representatives. Ultimately, the Chisso management flee the scene, but not after a gut wrenching confrontation of a desperate mother who’s child faces a lifetime of illness with the CEO of Chisso, who heartlessly dismisses her. Mostly, the Minamata vitims seek recognition, admitting that money can do little to repair the damage done. The Chisso management, in their hope to avert the legal and image related damages that would result, coldly refuse.

In the end, the massive negative publicity surrounding the shareholders meeting earns the Minamata victims a large compensation package, but no amount of money could ever repair the damage to human life exercised through Chisso’s irresponsibility. To this day, they legal fight for compensation and recognition continues. Tsuchimoto’s documentary remains and a disturbing reminder of the indifference of corporate entities to health and human welfare, but also stands as a testament to the power of brave, ragtag filmmakers to keep this memory alive.

Unrelated documetary, but it does use some of Tsuchimoto’s footage:

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
At the grimy Kepone factory

Osaka Human Rights Museum

Located in Naniwa Ward in Southern Osaka, I first encountered the Osaka Human Rights Museum (or Liberty Osaka as it is also known) in 1997 while aimlessly riding my bike at night, as I was prone to do at the time. Naniwa ward neighbors Nishinari Ward and traditionally is home to Osaka’s historically large Burakumin population. Before the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, Japan followed a strict caste system, naming Burakumin as the lowest or “untouchable” caste. While biological and historically no different than regular Japanese people, their participation in slaughterhouse work, the leather industry and embalming segregated them from the greater Japanese population due to the nature of their occupations. As Buraku people were not allowed to integrate with the majority, they often lived in concentrated settlements throughout most areas of Japan. The caste system was abolished in 1871, but discrimination continues to this day. Although it is impossible to physically tell who is or who is not a Burakumin, persons are often suspected to be Burakumin by place of residence. This is becoming more and more difficult as people move in and out of traditionally Buraku areas. The entire issue is fortunately on the way out and will likely fade away with time. Given this tainted history of economic and societal segregation in the area, it is no accident that Naniwa ward provides home to the Osaka Human Rights Museum.

The first of it’s kind since opening in 1985, Liberty Osaka is an incredibly well arranged, multimedia introduction to the troubled history of Japan’s diverse society. The museum focuses mainly on 20th century and present day social segregation and human rights although there is a special section devoted to segregation througout Japanese history from antiquity. The first main section of the museum is devoted to the struggles for societal improvements in the prewar era, such as women’s rights, rights of education and health care, and rights to work and safe domicile. This deep, historical struggle is contrasted with the present day consumer society which takes the great advances of Japan for granted, a fact that the museum clearly wishes to hammer on to school age and high school children who visit the museum. The museum continues, exploring topics as diverse as Buraku struggles for equal treatment, the Korean minority, rights of the handicapped, the state of HIV patients in Japan, Minamata disease and, as in my previous post, the situation of the aging homeless population in Japan.

It is an excellent center and worth seeing when visiting Osaka. All of the displays are given in Japanese, but English documentation and audio tours are available. There are even older volunteer workers who will gladly assist visitors throughout the museum. A little digging reveals that the Osaka Human Rights Museum is part of a larger network of more than 25 human rights offices throughout Japan. While these offices provide support and education for equal rights and discrimination issues, Liberty Osaka is the largest formal museum. It is hard to imagine such a large center in the United States and quite interesting to me that, in conservative Japan, such a well funded and dedicated operation could even exist.

Exiting the museum is a bizarre experience. The section of Naniwa ward it occupies is a sparsely inhabited collection of high rise public housing units. In bustling Osaka, it’s odd to stand in the middle of an urban area and not see anyone walking around. Cars, apparently providing home to whoever owns them are illegally parked along the side roads, lined up in rows. It is harsh reminder of the growing numbers of poor persons in Japan; persons who were likely at one time gainfully employed but have been cast out in Japan’s economic downturn.

On a brighter note, a short walk takes one to the Ashiharabashi station on the JR line. As the area is traditionally home to Buraku leather workers, Taiko manufacturers are based here. The bus station is dedicated to Taiko, with seats in the shape of Taiko drums and sheet music and history posted for all to read. It’s worth checking out the Taiko stores while one is there. Although most were closed due to Obon, you could still peer through the windows and see the impressive displays.

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