When Rie Koriyama read a highly acclaimed book during her college days on Minamata disease, a mercury-poisoning ailment that ravaged a small coastal city in southwest Japan, she was astounded that the mother she thought she knew so well could act with such callousness toward a sufferer.
“Kugai Jodo” (Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow), written by the late Michiko Ishimure, a writer and activist who did much to publicize the victims’ plight, quoted a member of a sufferer’s family as saying that a general store operator in Minamata refused to physically handle money from the victim’s mother for fear of contagion.
The tiny store, located in the community that was the disease’s epicenter, was run by Koriyama’s mother at the time. The sufferer was a neighbor.
“I had no choice but to leave (the money) on the floor. Maybe the operator picked it up later with chopsticks to boil it (for disinfection). I will never forget it,” the neighbor explained of the encounter in the book.
Koriyama, 72, who has been working for the past decade to support victims of the illness, partly as a result of finally coming to terms with her mother’s act, spoke to Kyodo News ahead of the 65th anniversary of the initial diagnosis of Minamata disease.
“My mother was a thoughtful person,” Koriyama said. “But I became aware that she stood on the side of those who discriminated against Minamata victims.”
Minamata disease, caused by mercury-tainted water dumped into the sea by chemical maker Chisso Corp, affects the central nervous system. It was initially believed to be communicable, partly because it appeared to spread among family members and neighbors, with birth defects sometimes occurring.
The Japanese government finally recognized it as a pollution-caused disease in 1968, around 12 years after the disease was recognized.
As a Minamata native, Koriyama belonged to a study group on the Minamata issue while a student at Kagoshima University from the late 1960s to early 70s, helping arrange lecture sessions and taking those who wished on tours of her hometown.
But she tried, whether consciously or not, to conceal the heartache that she had felt in reading “Kugai Jodo,” which chronicles Ishimure’s interactions with Minamata disease victims.
“Maybe it was too painful for me to preserve this memory about my mother,” she said.
After graduating from college, she married and began raising a family in the Tokyo area, far away from her hometown, and after taking a job at a welfare facility, left the Minamata issue behind.
During this time, the Minamata victims sought damages from Chisso as well as the state and local governments by filing lawsuits against them, while their supporters established a nonprofit organization called Minamata Forum in Tokyo with the aim of educating the public about the issue.
Living in the vicinity of the capital, Koriyama was well aware of these developments but did not dare to join them, feeling awkward at having been unable to do anything for the victims and for her hometown.
In 1996, she tried visiting the first large-scale Minamata exhibition in Tokyo, which displayed the damaged brains of deceased sufferers and hundreds of portraits of victims among other items, but quickly left the venue, feeling she “could not stand my own passivity.”
The turning point for Koriyama came in 2012, when she happened to attend a screening of the documentary film “Minamata — The Patients and Their Worlds,” directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, who died in 2008 but is known for his numerous works on Minamata disease.
The film showed another afflicted neighbor of Koriyama’s mother accusing her of refusing to directly accept money out of a fear of infection.
Koriyama has tried to explain to audiences who watched the film the angst her mother must have felt as she hoped to protect her own family when the cause of the illness was still unknown.
Authorities had been sterilizing areas in the epicenter in the wrongful belief that the disease was infectious and relatives have told her that her parents, both of whom are now dead, had been considering evacuating their four children.
“I became aware by that time that my mother had tried to prevent her store from becoming a source of infection,” she said.
Minamata disease sufferers not only endured awful pain from the sickness but were stigmatized, Koriyama said, by her mother’s and other’s discriminatory behavior.
“But I wanted the audiences of the screening to know my mother, for her part, was caught in unavoidable circumstances.”
“I also told them I was concerned about whether she had explained the desperate situation and made apologies to her customers,” she added. “I did not ask her about it before her death, but if she had done so, it would have led to restoring relations” with the afflicted customers.
As Koriyama’s case exemplifies, Minamata disease drove a wedge between people in the community.
Some condemned the victims’ moves to seek compensation and combat the stigma, saying they had damaged the reputation of the city, which had historically benefited from the employment Chisso provided. Even among the sufferers, antagonism was rife between those who were officially recognized as patients and those who were not.
As for Koriyama’s family, her father was employed by Chisso, while her grandmother was officially recognized as a Minamata disease patient. “My father earned paychecks from the offender, but he was also a victim as his mother was sickened by his employer.”
Her grandfather, a fisherman who showed Minamata disease-like symptoms, was deprived of his livelihood by the dumped mercury.
Since the 2012 screening of Tsuchimoto’s film, an event sponsored by Minamata Forum, she has supported the group’s activities as a commissioner, welcoming “the great opportunity to be involved in Minamata again.”
Minamata disease first came to light when a doctor in Minamata reported finding four patients with unexplained neurological disorders on May 1, 1956, around the beginning of Japan’s postwar high economic growth phase.
Minamata Forum held a lecture on Minamata disease in late April, marking the 65th anniversary of the disease’s confirmation, at a Tokyo auditorium, and Koriyama attended as a receptionist.
“I started undertaking my long-standing challenges 10 years ago, and I hope I can continue doing what I can to keep alive the legacy of my hometown as long as my health allows me to.”