Minamata Justice

Japan’s Supreme Court ordered the government to pay compensation to additional victims of one of the most egregious and troubling cases of environmental injustice: Minamata Bay mercury poisoning. The actual pollution happened in the 1950s, and the relationship between environmental mercury and neurological and mutagenic damage was recognized almost immediately. Minamata Bay residents became increasingly organized and radicalized in the 1960s, as the government and the responsible company put off their claims and refused to deal substantively with the issue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Minamata movement was one of the linchpin issues in the growing environmental movement in Japan, a movement that was blunted by the government’s adoption of rigorous clean-air laws in the mid-70s. But the failure to address Minamata directly led to the filing of a lawsuits for responsibility and compensation in the 1980s. A settlement in the mid-90s failed to address the issue of government responsibility (in an echo of Japan’s ongoing “comfort women” problem) and left out some victims who had not been so designated in an earlier round of bureaucratic management (an echo of Japan’s continuing problem with non-citizen [i.e. Korean forced labor] and late-classified hibakusha [atomic bomb victims]). In typically slow fashion, the case has finally been addressed by the highest court.

In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens we encounter the Four Horsemen (on motorcycles, real Hell’s Angels) of the Apocalypse: War, Death, Famine and …. well, Plague gave up when vaccinations and sulfa drugs started taking the fun out of disease (and missed out on some real fun), but he was replaced by Pollution, who takes immense pride in the much more pervasive and permanent damage done by heavy inorganics like arsenic and mercury….. Did I mention that it’s a comedy?

This case has gone on so long, that it’s history: Tim George, a gentleman historian and fine scholar, did his Ph.D. dissertation and first book on the Minamata activists. This is not unusual in the Japanese courts: it took almost thirty years for Ienaga’s textbook case to make it through the courts, and the cases involving Tanaka Kakuei were eventually dismissed due to the fact that he had died in the interim. This ruling is interesting, as the justices were quite direct and damning in their statement that the government should have known and should have acted much earlier than it did. I don’t think they’re done prosecuting the Aum Shinri Kyo (Tokyo Subway Gas Attack) cases yet, and that was almost ten years ago now.

[Crossposted at Cliopatria]


  1. First, I’d like to pass on a url for those of you interested in this, which is that of soshisha (http://soshisha.org/index.htm) My university (Kumamoto Gakuen Daigaku) is in the process of applying to Monbukagakusho for ‘COE’ status under the title of ‘Minamata studies’ and if there are any researchers or graduate students who are interested in making contacts, please let me know via email.

    And while the phrase ‘it’s history’ does convey the sense of truly disgusting foot dragging on the part of the government and the courts, I would argue that Minamata is more than history as it forms the core of progressivism within Kumamoto prefecture. There are cross links between those interested in Minamata and the recent leprosy decision as well as the Kawabegawa dam case and the Ariake sea protests. While the prefecture remains strongly conservative, the Minamata struggle continues to be a seed crystal for progressives in Kyushu.

  2. As a historian, when I say ‘it’s history’ I really don’t mean to be dismissive: the implications of citizen activism, even though blunted in the ’70s and ’80s, continue to reverberate. It’s just that more recent events are not considered ‘proper’ for historians to study, and Minamata is clearly fair game at this point.

  3. Thanks Jonathan, and apologies if you felt I was a bit too sharp with that comment. Speaking of progressivism, you may be interested in this article. I’d recommend the whole newsletter, which comes weekly and you can see back issues at japanfocus.org/

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