The methyl-mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay first became apparent in 1953, with sick children and "dancing cats," cats so frenzied they would "dance" and die. Initially it was thought that this was a contagious disease, and the victims were spurned by other villagers. It became obvious in the late 1950s that the release of methyl mercury from the Chisso chemical plant in Minamata Bay had caused high levels of mercury in fish, which resulted in the health problems of the local community, especially fishermen. Michiko Ishimure was a shy housewife from Minamata who was concerned about the plight of the villagers, who became ill from ingesting high levels of mercury.
Ishimure, who talked with many of the sick and dying, wrote Cruel Tales of Japan: Modern Period, her first account of the toxic effect of mercury poisoning in 1960. Her second, definitive work on the "Minamata disease" ( Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow ) appeared in 1969. This book won several awards, all of which Ishimure refused as long as the plight of the victims was not recognized. She organized a photo exhibition to bring the horrors of the disease to the world, but the powers of industry and government refused to take notice for a long time. It was not until 1968 that the Japanese government placed the responsibility of the pollution with the chemical plant. Even then it took a long time for the victims to receive monetary compensation.
Michiko Ishimure has been compared to Lois Gibbs, another woman activist, who rose from the status of common housewife to a leader-activist in the Love Canal pollution case. Ishimure is generally credited with keeping up the pressure on both industry and the Japanese government by publishing books and articles about a "disease" that most Japanese did not want to hear about. That she was a mother turned poet, writer, and activist in a country where women in general were subservient to men makes her contribution even more remarkable. Although she is no longer a leader in the movement for the rights of Minamata disease victims, her book has gone through thirty printings, and she still writes articles and gives lectures on the topic.
SEE ALSO M ERCURY .
Breton, Mary Joy. (1998). Women Pioneers for the Environment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
George, Timothy S. (2000). Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
Ishimure, Michiko. (1990). Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease. Translated by Livia Monnet. Kyoto: Yagamuchi Publishing House.
Ramon Magsaysay Center. "The 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts: Michiko Ishimure." Available from http://www.rmaf.org.ph/RMAFWeb/Documents/Awardee/Citation/mi_01cit.htm .
Johan C. Varekamp