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Give me liberty. I've already got death
Love Canal resident

Minamata is a remote coastal village located on Japan's westernmost island of Kyushu. For most of its history the town's economy depended on the sea and the sea was stingy. The people of Minamata struggled to make ends meet. And then Chisso Corporation arrived in the early 1900s and things began to look up. After WW 2 Chisso began producing acetaldehyde, used in the manufacture of plastics, and the local economy boomed. The people of Minamata were beholden to the company.

It began in the late 1940s with street cats twitching uncontrollably. The villagers called it "dancing" in the streets and laughed. Then the cats began to drop dead. Still not to worry. There was little regard for the stray cats in Mimamata. Only the most cynical of the locals gave this much thought. They began to wonder if these were not cats at all, but canaries in disguise.

And then, in 1950, a few of the fishermen and their families began to exhibit strange behavior. They would stumble and fall, tremble violently, and shout uncontrollably. Later they suffered seizures, hearing loss, and partial paralysis. These people were ignored too, even snubbed by much of the community. After all they were fishermen who were poor and therefore, like cats, didn't matter much. Then, in 1956, an epidemic of the symptoms broke out, even in a few of the more affluent factory workers. Then there was much confusion and fear in Minamata. And even more so when children began to be born with severe birth defects, including mental retardation and crippling limb deformities.

In 1959 medical researchers identified the cause of the syndrome as heavy metal poisoning with mercury from eating fish and shellfish out of Minamata Bay. The mercury was a by-product of the manufacture of acetaldehyde by Chisso. To dispose of the stuff the company poured it into the local bay whereupon it was supposedly diluted to insignificance. The "Big Earth" concept.

The total physical damage to humans will never be known, but experts estimate 10,000 were afflicted and 3,000 died. Over $600 million has been paid out in compensation to victims.

But that's not the end of this story. There were deep social undercurrents. Chisso employed 60% of the villagers, having essentially inherited the role of patriarchal lord from feudal Japan. The rest of the villagers were fishermen who ate more fish and thus suffered most from the mercury. The locals who depended on Chisso for their livelihood honored the company with their loyalty. When fishermen demonstrated against Chisso for damages, company workers organized counter-demonstrations. Even today Chisso, which no longer makes acetaldehyde, has a positive image among many in the community. But not everyone. In spite of all the money paid for damages there are lingering resentments in Minamata.

© Danny Kimberlin 2015