The Story of Minamata

Photo by William Eugene Smith


  • Minamata is located on the Western coast of Kyushu, Japan's southern most island
  • In 1932 the Chisso Corporation, an integral part of the local economy since 1907, began to manufacture acetaldehyde, used to produce plastics
  • Mercury from the production process began to spill into the bay the heavy metal became incorporated into methyl mercury chloride: an organic form that could enter the food chain
  • At the time, Minamata residents relied almost exclusively on fish and shellfish from the bay as a source of protein
  • After World War II (around 1952), the production of acetaldehyde boomed
  • Local economy boomed --and most residents welcomed their improved lifestyles
  • About the same time, fish began to float in Minamata Bay. Chisso, as it had since 1925, continued to pay indemnity to local fishermen for possible damage to their fishing waters
  • Cats began to exhibit bizarre behavior that sometimes resulted in their falling into the sea and dying, in what residents referred to as "cat suicides."
  • In the early 1950s, similar behavior began to appear--sporadically and without much notice--in humans
  • People would stumble while walking, not be able to write or button their buttons, have trouble hearing or swallowing, or tremble uncontrollably
  • Physiological effects, including successive loss of motor control, were devastating, and resulted in sometimes partly paralyzed and contorted bodies
  • By the end of 1956, epidemiological and medical researchers identified the disease as heavy-metal poisoning caused by eating the fish and shellfish of Minamata Bay
  • Direct evidence that mercury from the Chisso plant was responsible, however, did not emerge until 1959 by Dr. Hajimé Hosokawa
  • Children were also born with the "disease." The geographical distribution of cases widened.
  • In 1963, Public Health Service researchers traced the disease to mercury from Chisso.
  • It was not until 1970 that a district court ruled that Chisso make payments totalling $3.2 million to the original group of patients; others soon received payment by negotiating directly with Chisso.
  • Chisso still operates in Minamata and now produces chemicals, fertilizer and floppy discs.
  • The disease affected growing children more severely than adults. In fact, five children, ages 5-11, who had collected shellfish from the shore while playing, were the first documented cases.

Resources on Minamata:

  1. Guardian article - Mercury poisoning of thousands confirmed
  2. The Poisoning of Minamata by Douglas Allchin
  3. The Minamata disaster - 50 years on by Dr Stephen Juan
  4. Minamata Disease
  5. Minamata Disease and the Mercury Pollution of the Globe

TAKING SIDES : The Minamata Dilemma
The price paid by the people of Minamata is justified for the progress of their country.”

Read through the articles on Minamata given by all the links. View the dilemma through the eyes of the stakeholder you have chosen. There are 5 stakeholders in this discussion.

Photo by William Eugene Smith

For each stakeholder, consider the following points.
Tomokos hand (Photo by Eugene Smith
Chisso Company
  • What did you do in the past?
  • What are you doing in the present?
  • How do you feel?
  • What are your concerns?

Minamata disease victims
  • What symptoms did you exhibit?
  • How did society treat you?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings?
  • What do you want?

Minamata_4.jpgMother/Caregiver of victims

  • How do you feel?
  • What are your concerns?
  • What do you want?

Father/ Employee of Chisso company

  • How do you feel?
  • What are your concerns?
  • What do you want?

Dr. Hajime Hosokawa

  • How do you feel?
  • What are your concerns?
  • What is your dilemma?

In your group, wear the shoes of your stakeholder and try to imagine a day in the life of that person. Think the thoughts of that person, feel his/her emotions and empathise with him/her.
Write down in the discussion your thoughts, feelings, concerns, desires, hope for the future.


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