Imperial couple to visit Minamata disease site, leprosy sanitarium in Kumamoto

October 23, 2013

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Staff Writer

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko this month will visit two places in Kumamoto Prefecture associated with government policies that destroyed thousands of lives, tore apart families and left hundreds still seeking redress.

On Oct. 27, at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum, the imperial couple will hear the experiences of people affected by the world’s worst case of mercury poisoning.

They will also make their first visit to the National Sanitarium Kikuchi Keifuen in Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, and talk to leprosy patients who were forced into isolation for years under what has now been ruled an unconstitutional program.

The emperor and empress have long had an interest in the diseases and shown sympathy for the victims.

Akihito will be the first emperor to visit Minamata since the debilitating disease was confirmed 57 years ago.

The imperial couple will meet about 10 people, including “kataribe” (storytellers) who have given talks about their experiences with the mercury poisoning, and family members of other victims, at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum. The couple will also present flowers at a monument there.

Masami Ogata, 55, who heads the group of kataribe, will welcome Akihito and Michiko at the museum. He said he was told by Imperial Household Agency officials: “This will not be a ceremony, but an opportunity to hear about the hardships and suffering the patients experienced.”

During Japan’s push for economic growth after World War II, a Chisso Corp. factory in Minamata discharged wastewater containing methyl mercury into the sea.

Thousands who ate contaminated marine products later complained of numbness, motion disorders and impaired sight.

“Minamata disease has still not come to an end,” Ogata said. “I believe the imperial couple wants to directly encounter and remember the existence of the victims.”

Hundreds of people are still seeking certification as Minamata disease victims, which would entitle them to compensation.

Ogata’s application for certification was rejected four times before he filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn those decisions. In 2007, he was finally recognized as a Minamata disease patient.

“While I am now willing to forgive the government and Chisso Corp., there are many patients who still cannot forgive those who were at fault,” Ogata said.

The United Nations Environment Program organized the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Minamata Convention on Mercury earlier this month and began its session in Minamata. Although the international conference spread awareness of the dangers of mercury poisoning, it also reinforced the image of the city as the site of the industrial disaster.

“We want to relay the fact that the waters of Minamata have been resuscitated through improvements in the environment and wipe away the negative image of pollution,” an official with the Kumamoto prefectural government said.

As part of that objective, the emperor and empress will attend a national conference on creating a more bountiful ocean, where fry will be released into waters off Minamata.

Masazumi Yoshii, 82, a former Minamata mayor, said: “In exchange for economic growth, the waters of Minamata were destroyed, and the central government played a role. The resuscitation of the ocean is still not completed.”

In 1984, when Yoshii headed the Minamata municipal assembly, he attended a reception at the Akasaka Estate of the Imperial Household Agency in Tokyo. At that time, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko asked Yoshii about the situation in Minamata and encouraged him to do his best despite the many difficulties he faced.

“I knew they had an interest because they approached me after seeing my name card,” Yoshii said. “It will be very significant for them to understand the actual situation through their visit.”

The interest of Akihito and Michiko in the leprosy issue has taken them to 11 of the 14 national sanitariums for patients since 1968.

On Oct. 26, they will present flowers at the charnel house of the Kikuchi Keifuen sanitarium, where the remains of 1,288 patients are kept. The number represents about one-third of those who died at the sanitarium.

Under a now-repealed policy, the government isolated leprosy patients to prevent a further spread of the disease. Their ties to their family members were severed, and their remains were never claimed for burial in family graves.

Yasushi Shimura, 80, the acting head of the residents association at Kikuchi Keifuen, will welcome the imperial couple.

Shimura entered the sanitarium when he was 15 after he was diagnosed with the disease. He married another patient, but they were not allowed to have children, and his wife was forced to have an abortion.

He joined a group of plaintiffs who sued the central government in 1998, arguing that its isolation policy was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed two years after the Leprosy Prevention Law was abolished.

In 2001, the Kumamoto District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and that decision has been finalized.

When the lawsuit was first submitted, many plaintiffs used pseudonyms. However, during the course of the legal proceedings and after the ruling was handed down, many plaintiffs started to reveal their real names.

“I will never forget the scenes of people telling others their true names as proof of their reinstatement in human society after having spent so many years living in clinical facilities under names that were not their own,” Michiko wrote in response to media questions marking her birthday in 2001.

Shimura said he was looking forward to the visit by the imperial couple.

“I was born in the same year as the emperor,” he said. “I believe he is someone who truly understands the tragedy of war and the importance of protecting the Constitution.”

In 1931, money donated by Empress Teimei, the wife of Emperor Taisho, was used to establish a leprosy prevention association. After the end of World War II, imperial family members visited sanitariums around Japan.

But during the ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne by both Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa, the internal affairs ministry issued instructions prohibiting leprosy patients from entering areas related to various ceremonies. That is said to have led to a further isolation of the patients.

“While the prestige of the imperial family has been used at times to comfort the patients, it was also used to thoroughly implement the isolation policy,” said Yutaka Fujino, a professor of Japanese history at Keiwa College in Niigata Prefecture.

Emperor Showa, the posthumous name for Emperor Hirohito, visited the Minamata factory of Chisso’s predecessor on two occasions, in 1931 and 1949.

Writer Michiko Ishimure, 86, was 4 years old when Emperor Showa visited in 1931. She remembers sitting formally on her heels in a rice paddy as the car carrying the emperor entered the factory’s main gate.

Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko visited Minamata and talked with patients in 1999.

In October that year, when Akihito and Michiko visited Kumamoto Prefecture to attend the opening ceremony of the national sports festival, the emperor met with residents at a hotel to hear about the situation surrounding Minamata disease. Michiko heard an explanation about leprosy from the head of Kikuchi Keifuen.

Akira Hashimoto, a journalist and Akihito’s close friend from childhood, said the emperor has long been interested in Minamata disease due to calls for his visit to the starting point of pollution problems in Japan.

“One reason that visit never took place may have been the fact that Crown Princess Masako’s grandfather (the late Yutaka Egashira) was once Chisso president,” Hashimoto said. “I highly praise his courage in making his first visit to Minamata as emperor and meeting with patients to understand the situation in an attempt to empathize with the victims.”

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Staff Writer
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Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watch senior citizens engaged in musical activities at a welfare facility in September. (Pool)

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watch senior citizens engaged in musical activities at a welfare facility in September. (Pool)

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  • Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watch senior citizens engaged in musical activities at a welfare facility in September. (Pool)
  • Akira Ota, a former head of the residents association at the National Sanitarium Kikuchi Keifuen, stands in front of part of the wall that once cut off the facility from the outside world. (Ryuichi Kitano)
  • The charnel house at the National Sanitarium Kikuchi Keifuen holds the remains of 1,288 patients that were never claimed by family members. (Ryuichi Kitano)
  • Masami Ogata heads the group of "kataribe" at the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum. (Ryuichi Kitano)

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