We Won’t Allow Minamata Disease Victims to be Abandoned

90% of visitors show symptoms of Minamata Disease: Minamata Disease Health Examination held on January 22, 2012

“90% of the visitors showed symptoms of Minamata Disease” was the result of the one-day Grand Minamata Disease Health Examinations held on January 22, 2012. They clearly showed the fact that many patients are still left without any relief measures provided. The government recently decided to set July 31 2012 as the deadline of applications for relief measures according to the “Law Regarding Special Measures for Minamata Disease Patients”. This has triggered anger among people as the government is attempting to abandon the patients without conducting a thorough investigation over their actual situation.

The Grand Health Examination was sponsored by the Minamata Disease Shiranui Patients Association. Six mass examination venues were set up in 4 prefectures (Kumanoto, Kagoshima, Okayama and Osaka), where a total of 396 people visited. The disorders of sensation, characteristic to Minamata Disease patients, were observed in 356 people out of the 396 examined, accounting for 90% of the total.
The reporter visited one of the venues set up at Amakusa-Higashi Health and Welfare Center in Amakusa City, Kumamoto Prefecture. Though this area was excluded from the government-designated Minamata Disease-afflicted area, a large number of potential patients were expected to live in this area.
“Some members of Minamata Patients Association invited me to take the examination”, Ms. Kubo Hiroko (Age 71) said. She has loved to eat fish from childhood. She used to eat such fish as horse mackerels and cutlass fish that her fisher parents caught, “at every meal, often with a second helping”.
Except the 8 years from age 17 when she lived and worked in Osaka, Hiroko has spent most of her life in Amakusa. Around the time when she turned 30 years old, she began to suffer from numbness in her limps and leg cramps. “In worst times, I suffered contractures in my arms almost every day”. She complained about such conditions often seen among Minamata Disease patients, as stumbling over even a smallest bump on the edge of tatami mats, having difficulty to close a button, or narrowing of visual field (she could not notice someone standing right beside her).
She used to think these conditions were “due to my old age”. In Amakusa City, being out of the government-designated area, there were no opportunities for her to recognize the possibility of herself being a Minamata patient. “There are many people who migrated out of this area. There may be many more people having similar symptoms like me,” Hiroko said.

“I was surprised to know such familiar symptoms were related to Minamata Disease”
Seemingly the youngest among the 148 visitors at the center was a 48-year-old woman from Shinwa-machi. “I was skimming an interview sheet given by my younger brother, and found many items ringing bells to me. I was surprised to know such familiar symptoms were related to Minamata Disease,” she said.
For many years, she has suffered from anemia, leg cramps, taste disorder or visual abnormality. In 1968, when Chisso Corporation, responsible for the Minamata Disease, reported that it no longer discharged organic mercury, she was 5 years old. With anxious look, she said, “Being in infancy when my body was rapidly growing, I might have been very susceptible to the effect of absorbed mercury.”
A 55-year-old man took the examination together with his mother (age 81). He has suffered from severe headache since his twenties. “Since my childhood, my mother used to complain that her head throbbed with pain. Now that I have the same symptom, I finally understood her suffering.”
Even an examination at a university hospital could not explain the cause of his headache. “I have suffered from this for several decades. I had many check-ups, took medication every day, which cost me a lot of money. I want some assistance to cover my medical cost at least,” he said.

Government relief measures should cover to the last person
Over 200 staff members from the Min-Iren network supported the Grand Health Examinations as volunteer workers. They interviewed each visitor and obtained detailed information necessary for applying for relief measures from the government: How “much” fish caught in “which areas” was eaten “when”, and “what kind of symptoms” appeared on the interviewee for “how long” and “when”, etc.
Mr. Nakamura Yusuke, a nurse at Minamata Kyoritu Hospital worked in the examination to interview the visitors. He said, “Without exception, people used to eat a lot of fish. Only a few people said they didn’t like fish, but as long as their diet centered around eating fish, there is no reason to believe the effect of exposure to mercury would not appear on them.” He further said emphatically, “Many people tend to disregard their Minamata-specific symptoms such as numbness in their arms and legs as merely due to their old age. This has brought home to me the great number of potential patients. The government must provide relief to all the victims who have Minamata Disease symptoms, to the last patient. The relief measures should not be limited to those selected arbitrarily by the government or Chisso Corporation.”
According to Dr. Oishi Fumihiro, Director of Kuwamizu Hospital, out of 13 patients he examined, 12 had sensation disorders. The condition of one of them was so severe that he did not feel anything even when the doctor picked his hand with a test needle. He said, “We had learned that not only in coastal areas but also in mountainous regions such as Ashikita-machi, many people have consumed contaminated fish bought from visiting vendors. We need to demand that the government should conduct an all-out health survey covering all the people in the extensive areas.”

Only a thorough investigation of the situation would draw important lessons
In the wake of the result of the health examination events, on January 25, “No More Minamata National Forum of Victims and Lawyers Groups,” made up of Shiranui Patients Association and lawyers involved, traveled to Tokyo to have negotiations with the Ministry of Environment, and urged the ministry not to close the reception of the applications for relief measures. However on February 3, Hosono Takeshi, Minister of Environment announced that the deadline of July 31 would be unchanged. Trying to justify the deadline, he said, “The purpose of the law is to urge potential patients to make applications within the set period of 3 years.”
General Secretary Harada Toshiro of Kumamoto Forum to Support Minamata Disease Struggle stated with indignation, “The period of ‘three years’ was originally set as the deadline for the government to bring the problem to a final solution. Without fulfilling its due obligation to make the law widely known, the government is using this as an excuse for abandoning the victims. It’s totally unacceptable.” Mr. Harada further said, “Still now, several hundred to one thousand people every month submit their applications for relief measures. As was clearly shown through our health examination events, there are many more potential patients. The spirit of the law is to ‘save all those who are due to be relieved.’ By widely making the law known to the people, the applications for relief should continue to be accepted as long as applicants exist.”
President Oishi Toshio of Minamata Disease Shiranui Patients Association said, “It is now 56 years since Minamata Disease was first recognized officially. During these years, halfway measures by the government of the time have hindered the final solution of the problem to be reached. Every time the government set a standard for relief measures, new potential patients emerged, requesting for relief. It has been a history of such a repetition of standard-settings and emergence of new patients.”
Mr. Oishi questioned, “What kind of scientific basis is there in drawing a line of demarcation between designated areas by the government?”
“The sea is connected to all areas. Only by conducting a comprehensive health survey covering all the people in the areas, a full picture of the damage will be made clear. This should be the basis for making the perpetrator fulfill its responsibility for compensation, and leads to a comprehensive resolution of the problem. Looking at the response to Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, we can see that the government has never learned any lessons from Minamata Disease. It continues to draw a line of demarcation according to the distance from the source of contamination, and tries to underestimate the damage and lower the amount of compensation. Whether a comprehensive and genuine resolution of Minamata Disease, which is called the ‘point of origin of environmental pollution’, is achieved or not will be an important test for Japan in determining the future of our society”, Mr. Oishi said blandly but with fortitude.

(Report by Takeda Tsutomu; Photo by Noda Masaya)