Minamata: The dark side of Japan's industrialisation

October 10, 2013

Minamata was the site of Japan's worst ever industrial poisoning and is regarded as the dark side of Japan's rapid modernisation during the 20th Century.

For decades, a synthetic resin factory run by chemical company Chisso Corp had been dumping methylmercury into the bay of the town on southwestern Kyushu island, poisoning the marine habitat.

The methylmercury accumulated in shellfish and fish in the bay. For the many people living nearby whose chief source of protein was the sea, it meant the gradual build-up in their bodies of this powerful toxin.

Victims suffered spasms, seizures and loss of sensation and motor control that impaired their ability to walk and speak. Babies were born with nervous system damage and other mental and physical deformities.

The health problems and mysterious deaths of humans and animals were reported in the fishing communities of Minamata in the early 1950s, but no action was taken.

The first official report by a local hospital came in 1956. Although Chisso was immediately suspected, its management denied responsibility and the plant continued dumping mercury until 1968, when it was officially blamed for the .

In the 12 years that separated the two events, estimates suggest as much as 150 tonnes of mercury was discharged by the factory, sickening many more people.

Documents published on the Ministry of the Environment's website say fears over the impact on Japan's soaring economy were to blame for the long delay in tackling industry over environmental standards.

Around 2,000 of those affected by the poisoning have now died, many thousands more are still suffering its effects.

In 2009, more than half a century after the first case was officially reported, the Japanese government created a special law to compensate victims of what had become known as "Minamata Disease".

More than 65,000 people applied for redress over the following three years, while plaintiffs seeking compensation from Chisso and the central and local governments reached out-of-court settlements.

The outbreak of Minamata Disease is considered a turning point in Japan for awareness of the environmental and human cost of unfettered economic development and led to the gradual introduction of safeguards.

Explore further: Mercury high in Japanese town that hunts dolphins

Related Stories

Mercury high in Japanese town that hunts dolphins

May 9, 2010

(AP) -- Residents of the dolphin-hunting village depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove" have dangerously high mercury levels, likely because of their fondness for dolphin and whale meat, Japan's government ...

Investigating mercury pollution in Indonesia

September 25, 2013

Professor Takanobu Inoue of Toyohashi Tech's Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering has been conducting field surveys of mercury poisoning in Indonesia for over a decade. His findings have serious implications ...

Minamata convention treaty seeks to reduce mercury pollution

September 27, 2013

(Phys.org) —People from 140 countries across the globe will be signing a treaty this month—its purpose is to reduce the amount of man-made mercury pollution being released into the environment. The treaty signing follows ...

Warmer oceans could raise mercury levels in fish

October 3, 2013

Rising ocean surface temperatures caused by climate change could make fish accumulate more mercury, increasing the health risk to people who eat seafood, Dartmouth researchers and their colleagues report in a study in the ...

Minamata mercury treaty signed at UN conference (Update)

October 10, 2013

Delegates from some 140 countries and territories Thursday signed a United Nations treaty to control mercury near the site of Japan's worst industrial poisoning, after Tokyo pledged $2 billion to help poorer nations combat ...

Recommended for you

Ice sheets may be more resilient than thought

September 3, 2015

Sea level rise poses one of the biggest threats to human systems in a globally warming world, potentially causing trillions of dollars' worth of damages to flooded cities around the world. As surface temperatures rise, ice ...

Clues from ancient Maya reveal lasting impact on environment

September 3, 2015

Evidence from the tropical lowlands of Central America reveals how Maya activity more than 2,000 years ago not only contributed to the decline of their environment but continues to influence today's environmental conditions, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.