Our 20th Century – In Pursuit of the West
Looking Down on the Sea of Death from the Bountiful Earth
Kyūshū is the third-largest of the four main islands in the Japanese archipelago, together with Honshū, Hokkaidō, and Shikoku.
With a surface area of 36,782.37km2, globally, Kyūshū is the 37th-largest island after Spitsbergen in Norway at number 36. The greater Kyūshū region also includes the chain of islands extending further to the south, such as Yakushima Island, Amami Ōshima, and the Okinawa island group.
In terms of local government, Kyūshū is currently divided into eight prefectures, being Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Ōita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagoshima, and Okinawa, which were established in 1871 with the abolition of the han (clan) system as part of Japan’s administrative modernization. Until then, Kyūshū was divided into the nine kuni (provinces) of Chikuzen, Chikugo, Hizen, Higo, Buzen, Bungo, Hyūga, Satsuma, and Ōsumi, typical of the centralized political systems in ancient East Asia.
Further back, Kyūshū was divided into four kuni, Tsukushi, Toyo, Hi, and Kumaso. The expressions “Chikuhō” (for the northern part of modern Fukuoka Prefecture, derived from the first characters of Tsukushi and Toyo) and “Hi” for Kumamoto Prefecture are in use even now.
The city of Minamata is located in the very south of the ancient kuni of Hi, in Kumamoto Prefecture. To the south lies Kagoshima Prefecture, and to the west, Minamata faces the ocean with an expansive, deeply indented rias coastline and a view to the Amakusa Islands beyond. It is an area of scenic beauty, blessed by both sea and mountains.
Minamata is located 70km from Kumamoto City. By air, Minamata is around one hour by car from either Kumamoto or Kagoshima Airports. By rail, the Kyūshū Shinkansen reaches Shin-Minamata Station in about one hour from Hakata, the central station of Fukuoka Prefecture.
From a society centered on agriculture to a society centered on industry
Since the Industrial Revolution which began in the U.K. in the 18th century, the world has been moving from a focus on agriculture to being centered on industry, with many significant technological and economic changes occurring. This trend continues to the present day.
The Minamata Factory of the Japan Nitrogenous Fertilizer Company (currently Chisso Corporation) opened in 1908, and Minamata City developed as a company town. However, it released industrial wastewater containing methylmercury into the sea (Minamata Bay), and 2,300 people were afflicted with Minamata disease. The discovery of Minamata disease was officially announced on May 1, 1956. Because of the large number of victims, the waters off Minamata became known as “the Sea of Death,” and the name Minamata became known worldwide.
Harm from mercury was not isolated to Japan; in the 19th century, the chemical compound mercury nitrate was used in hat factories for making felt. Factory employees breathed in the mercury vapor released during work over long hours each day, and many came to suffer from personality disorders, hallucinations, and terrible shivering. A famous satirical character of this era was The Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, which was created based on the common expression of the time, “as mad as a hatter.” The Japanese translation of the name is also the equivalent to The Mad Hatter, but this name is not used in the novels, and the character’s connection with mercury is not known in Japan.
Minamata disease involves the breakdown of the central nervous system due to methylmercury poisoning, and its symptoms include severe seizures. Its effects were first observed in Minamata in the early 1950s, when cats started bumping into walls, standing up, going topsy-turvy and walking around in circles, making strange sounds, and jumping into the sea. Residents began calling the phenomenon the “cat dancing disease” (neko odori byō) and other suspicious phenomena such as crows suddenly dying also began to occur. The situation gradually advanced so that around 1956, the residents themselves began to stagger, and the cause of the disease was identified in 1959.
In 1962, it was proven that the chemical manufacturing processes of the Chisso Minamata Factory could cause methylmercury poisoning, but it did not stop discharging industrial wastewater into the sea until 1968, 12 years after the first victims appeared.
There are many cases – not only in Japan – where industry-focused societies unintentionally disrupt the balance with nature, a process which, once started, cannot be stopped easily. Even now, there are many environmental issues for which solutions have not been found.
We first aim to share our history, background, and experiences with the world, continuing to discuss it so that it never happens again. We believe that our next job is to open up new ways of working living, and communicating with each other, so that we do not simply pass the buck and thus lose sight of the essence of what we must do, waste time, and create pointless antagonism between people. To do this, we need to not fear change so that each and every one of us can listen to our conscience and not just turn a blind eye.
The Sea of Death – Reborn
The Yatsushiro Sea (also known locally as the Shiranui Sea) coast was blessed with the riches of the sea and home to a prosperous fishing industry. However, it collapsed after fishing was prohibited after 1958 due to the occurrence of Minamata disease. As well as the misfortune of illness, many people also lost their jobs and the source of their livelihoods.
What the factory was discharging was not mercury in its elemental form. Elemental mercury, a heavy metal, becomes a positive ion after losing an electron. The particular positive ion formed after mercury loses electrons and takes on 1 or 2 electrical charges is called inorganic mercury, which is what caused the problems in Minamata. Another contributor to the problems was the anaerobic bacteria which live in Minamata Bay, which take not oxygen but sulfur as their energy source. When these bacteria came into contact with the inorganic mercury in the Minamata Bay water, the mercury changed into its most toxic form, methylmercury. In essence, inorganic compounds and organic compounds – like oil and water – would not try to mix. Thus, if only the base inorganic mercury ions were floating around, the vegetation on the sea floor would not absorb them, but the methylmercury created by the bacteria could be absorbed by the vegetation, leading to poisoning of people and animals. This is because, unlike mercury itself, almost all methylmercury is absorbed by the digestive system, so the poisoning spread up the food chain from the seafloor vegetation to fish.
The above photograph was taken of a mountain river where organic matter has pooled and the smell of earth was evident.
The anaerobic bacteria which contributed to the problems are not unique to Minamata, but are created through the decomposition of organic matter in rivers containing a large amount of such matter. Organic matter pools in the bends of poor-flowing rivers, sulfur is restored by anaerobic bacteria, which generates hydrogen sulfide and its characteristic sulfur odor. The ocean environment has taught us the importance of cleaning the sludge off mountains.
Areas where mud with a high mercury concentration has accumulated are surrounded with thick steel plates to section off the ocean, and filled in with mud dredged from offshore with relatively low mercury concentration. Uncontaminated earth from the mountains is then layered on top to create 58 spacious hectares of reclaimed land where there had been contaminated ocean. The elementary school children of the time brought seeds and acorns from their house gardens or the mountains to plant on the newly-reclaimed land. Those seeds have now grown into magnificent trees, providing pleasant shade from the heat of summer. The park is used as a space for sports year-round by many people.
The mud containing mercury is now buried underground, so believing that we cannot leave a significant negative legacy for future generations, as this would mean forgetting the lessons learned from Minamata disease, our work continues. Our initiatives now include discussing technology and trials to enable digging up and purifying the mercury mud.
From the edge of the reclaimed land, there is a view over to Koiji Island in the Yatsushiro Sea. Some elderly residents have commented that “Koiji Island used to be much further away, but with the reclamation, it looks much closer now.”
Dividing nets used to be installed to prevent contaminated fish and shellfish from being released from Minamata Bay, but they were all removed in 1997 after safety was confirmed. It must also be said that Minamata disease had a major impact on interpersonal relations in the local community.
William Eugene Smith – Taking MINAMATA to the World
William Eugene Smith was an American photojournalist. As a photographer for LIFE magazine, from 1957 to 1958 he was a member of the world-renowned Magnum Photos photographic cooperative thanks to his outstanding record. He had a passion for journalism, and fought doggedly with his editors, who aimed to sell magazines.
Learning of the Minamata incident, he traveled to Japan with his wife Aileen Mioko Smith for the third time in September 1971. During the subsequent three years, they lived in Minamata and recorded the state and changes in the residents through photographs. Their photo essay, “’Minamata’, Words and Photographs by W.E. Smith and A.M. Smith”, was announced to the world in 1975.
Eugene Smith’s records were also featured an exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in Ebisu, Tokyo, in winter 1996, called “Japan Through the Eyes of W. Eugene Smith.” The exhibition was in three sections, being the focal groups of his work in Japan, “The Second World War,” “Hitachi,” and “Minamata.”
Eugene’s message is preserved in audio recordings taken in Minamata.
“People ask, why are you, a foreigner, here in Minamata? They ask why are we taking an interest in this incident. Although I look like a foreigner, I am not taking an interest in what is happening in Minamata as a foreigner. I am here for my sake, for my wife, for my children, for the residents of Minamata, and for the whole world.”
They spent three years in Minamata, capturing the silent voices of people who had had their lives destroyed, people who should have been taking steps forward filled with hope, but were instead suffering in states they should not have innately been. However, until the very end he was unable to take photographs to truly capture those emotions, and his tears as he recalled the sufferers are also recorded.
Eugene’s comments with the photo essay speak of his two responsibilities in creating the document.
The first is his responsibility to the subject of the photo. The second is his responsibility to the viewer of the photo.
Am I not hurting the sufferers by photographing them? We can also learn through his work and life about the weight of responsibility he felt toward publishing the photos. As journalists driven to seek untold stories, the path taken by Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen can even now be followed in many ways. Their story is also recorded in a 2018 NHK documentary “Photos are small voices – Eugene Smith’s Minamata.”
Can we truly take on board “for the whole world” the truth which he devoted his life to recording, and use it as lessons learned?
62 years after the Minamata incident, many lives and much property were lost in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. People living in the greater Tokyo region had to spend nights in the dark in order to save power, but are we not now over-illuminating our cities as if we have forgotten about that experience?
At the very least, the people of Minamata have not forgotten their past experiences, and can be seen to live as if they are always looking for their next way of living.
Food: from the experience of misfortune until plenty is regained
Away from the ocean up in the mountains, a completely different time and lifestyle has been preserved to the wave of industrialization which began with the Industrial Revolution in the U.K. in the 18th century and which took place here on the coast.
Heading inland, ancient Minamata lifestyles inherited from the Jōmon period (approx. 14,000–300 BC) can still be seen.
Among the mountainous area featuring many craggy peaks, terraced rice paddy fields with stonework distinctive to western Japan have been developed over many years. Terraced rice paddy fields with stonework are now highly unusual throughout Japan, but rural landscapes featuring them are a common sight in Minamata.
However, because these small-scale rice paddies have been built on steeply-sloped hills, farm machinery cannot be brought in to work on them, and many fields are even now planted and harvested by hand. As the population of Japan ages, more and more fields are being abandoned. There is concern that scenery which has endured for hundreds of years may change in a few years due to depopulation.
If grass or trees grow in the cracks between the stones, the stonework tends to collapse more easily. Thus, the surfaces have not been made flat, but with some protrusions to provide footholds for climbing up to cut the grass in high places. This unusual structure is a feature of this region. However, grass is indeed growing through a lot of stonework.
In other places, stonework walls have been used to bring spring water into living areas, with water used without waste in different locations for agriculture, cooking, and washing. Structures built during the Edo Period (1603-1868) are still able to be used today.
In addition, even now there are stonemasons at work in the area, with refined skills to fully ascertain how a stone will break if a pile is driven in in a certain way.
People living in the mountains catch crabs and eels in the traditional way, as if time had been rewound, making their daily diet all the more plentiful. We also share the seasonal blessings of the mountains, and time around the lunch and dinner table is always lively.
As you would expect, the forest turns pitch black when the sun goes down. Laugh lots, drink lots, eat lots. Our favorite way to spend time in Minamata is at Yunotsuru Onsen, a spa located around 8km into the mountains from Minamata City center, taking a rest at the “Tojiya” guesthouse’s hot spring.
With ingredients brought directly to the kitchen from the rivers, forests, fields, and gardens without going through any currency-based market, through staying in Minamata, we experience the true richness which comes from the table being close to nature.
A town which was frightened about food safety is working to overcome its experience and reclaim true richness.
Around 40 years since the occurrence of Minamata disease, this is how we are living our lives now.
Aiming to create work which will last 100 years
MINAMATA became known to the world for environmental pollution. Even now, there are many factory workers in the downtown area, but there are also many people who care for the land as it has been looked after for generation after generation, practicing agriculture close to the land. Even though concerned by reputational damage, farmers have begun organic cultivation – i.e. without using agricultural chemicals – of vegetables and tea, aiming to achieve nationwide recognition again.
The foundation of this initiative is not simply trying to sell produce, but an outlook on life which the people who live here have been forced to confront. The answers were derived naturally in response to the basic questions of what the aims of connections between people and nature are and how we should live. Word is gradually spreading, beginning with people who are brought together by strong shared bonds.
We often hear that returning to the lifestyles of the Edo Period is a solution to environmental problems, but we do not really think that returning to the past is the answer. As the world continues to industrialize, the misfortune that befell Minamata could occur again in any town, anywhere. If that were to happen, what we can learn from Minamata is that the way to ultimately work out a solution begins with the conscience of each and every human being. We talk about the next step to take while projecting onto Minamata a microcosm of the issues of unemployment caused by the cycles of the monetary economy, etc., divergence between cities and farming villages, and the diversity of issues the world now faces.
We have decided to form a collaboration between Minamata and Portugal for our Made with Japan initiatives in 2019, and are steadily making our preparations toward it.
Step by step, we move forward, beginning with what we can achieve with our colleagues here.
We always keep uppermost in mind how to learn from specialists and those who have gone before us, and how to create a better environment suited to the times.
The message“A world to be born under your footsteps” is the caption on Eugene Smith’s famous photograph, The Walk to Paradise Garden.
Our hope is to – while searching beyond national borders for the new ways to work which create opportunity and a place to belong for the next generation – to also continue creating “the next Minamata,” the one the world does not yet know of.