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Minamata disease, Japan

Minamata disease is caused by methylmercury poisoning. The name comes from Minamata Bay in Kumamoto prefecture where the Chisso factory released industrial waste. During 1932-1968 local residents, especially fisher families, suffered the consequences.


Minamata disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning.  The name corresponds to the name of the Minamata Bay in Kumamoto prefecture where the disease was first identified. During 1932-1968 local residents, especially fisher families have been suffering from a variety of symptoms. The cause (recognized in 1958) was the release of methylmercury in the industrial waste by Chisso Corporation Factory over a period of 36 years.  In this sense, the disease was caused by the consumption of heavy metals which the victims ingested through contaminated fish.  Fishermen demanded compensation for fishing families to damage to fishing grounds . Fishermen demanded 100.000.000 Y but they only receive 35.000.000 Y (less than 100.000 $). On 2 November 1959 the fishermen stormed the Chisso factory, destroying machinery. The riot police arrested them. The regional labour union and the citizens of Minamat sided with the Chisso company, at this point. Chisso was ready to pay some compensations but refused legal liability, until a court case was started years later.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Minamata disease, Japan
State or province:Kumamoto prefecture
Location of conflict:Minamata Bay
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Specific commodities:Chemical products
Plastics, Methylmercury
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Chisso Minamata factory first started acetaldehyde production in 1932, producing 210 tons that year. By 1951 production had jumped to 6,000 tons per year and reached a peak of 45,245 tons in 1960.

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population: 2,265 certified victims
Start of the conflict:04/1956
Company names or state enterprises:Chisso Corporation from Japan
Relevant government actors:Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectural government, Kumamoto University, Ministry of Health and Welfares Minamata Food Poisoning Subcommittee, Minamata Mayor, Todomu Nakamura, Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Japan Chemical Industry Association
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Douglas McAlpine., The Chisso factory hospital director, Hajime Hosokawa., The Minamata Fishing Cooperative., Masazumi Harada., Eizo Watanabe., Kumamoto District Court., Minamata Disease Patients Families Mutual Aid Society.
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
The Minimata Fisherman's Union
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
establishment of a mutual aid society for victims, sit-ins at Chisso headquarters and a tent settlement in front of the office in Tokyo
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsMinamata disease produced by methylmercury
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Specific impacts on women
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Project cancelled
Strengthening of democracy
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:According to Timothy S. George (2002), the environmental protests that surrounded the disease appeared to aid in the democratization of Japan. When the first cases were reported and subsequently suppressed, the rights of the victims were not recognised, and they were given no compensation. Instead, the afflicted were ostracised from their community due to ignorance about the disease, as people were afraid that it was contagious.
The people directly impacted by the pollution of Minamata Bay were not originally allowed to participate in actions that would affect their future. Disease victims, fishing families, and company employees were excluded from the debate. Progress occurred when Minamata victims were finally allowed to come to a meeting to discuss the issue. As a result, postwar Japan took a small step toward democracy.
Through the evolution of public sentiments, the victims and environmental protesters were able to acquire standing and proceed more effectively in their cause. The involvement of the press also aided the process of democratization because it caused more people to become aware of the facts of Minamata disease and the pollution that caused it.
Although the environmental protests did result in Japan becoming more democratized, it did not completely rid Japan of the system that first suppressed the fishermen and victims of Minamata disease.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Compensation Act (Criterion, 1977)

Law Concerning Payment of Costs of Preventive Work against Pollution by Pollutants (Law No. 133 of 1970

Temporary Measures Law Relating to Labor Facilitation Certification of Minamata Disease (Law No. 104 of 1978)

Extraordinary Measures Law for Victims Relief and Solution of the Problem of Minamata Disease (Act No. 81 of 2009

Concerning the Compensation Act and Prevention of Damage to Health As Impact of Pollution (Law No. 111 of 1973)

Extraordinary Measures Law Concerning the Relief Health Damage caused by Pollution (Act No. 90 of 1969)

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] McCurry, J. (2006). Japan remembers minamata. Lancet, 367(9505), 99-100.

'Minamata Disease: The History and Measures', The Ministry of the Environment, (2002), retrieved 17 January 2007.

Ishimure, Michiko. 1990. Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow. English translation by Livet Monnet. Yamaguchi Publishing House (c/o Japan Publications Trading Co., Ltd., Tokyo).

Margaret Mckean, Environmental Protests and Citizen Politics in Japan, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981

[2] The Poisoning of Minamata, Douglas Allchin
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Timothy George's book , Minamata. Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan, 2002.
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Enseñanzas de la Enfermedad de Minamata y el Manejo del Mercurio en Japón
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

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Meta information
Contributor:Desireé Torrente
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:197
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