Minamata disease photo exhibition shows the long, continuing suffering

November 12, 2013

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Staff Writer

A picture of a man rejoicing was added to a photo exhibition in Tokyo, a rare image of happiness in the half-century-long plight of Minamata disease victims.

Photojournalist Shisei Kuwabara’s exhibition, titled “Shiranuikai” (Shiranui Sea), mainly shows the suffering and the neurological effects among people who ate mercury-tainted seafood in and around Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in the 1950s. The Shiranui Sea faces the prefecture.

The inclusion of the rejoicing man was, in fact, intended to show that the mercury-poisoning disaster, Japan’s worst case of industrial pollution, has yet to be resolved.

The photos in the “Shiranuikai” exhibition are from among the 30,000 he has taken over the past 53 years. The exhibition follows his photo collection “The Minamata Disaster” published in September by Fujiwara Shoten.

Kuwabara, 77, has also taken news photos in a number of overseas countries, such as South Korea and Vietnam. But “I was always pulled back to Minamata,” he said. “I don’t know the reason why.”

Kuwabara pursued a career in photography after graduating from university. In 1960, his life changed when he read an article in the Shukan Asahi weekly magazine under the headline, “Minamatabyo wo Miyo” (Look at Minamata disease).

“This theme is what I should pursue,” he said he thought at the time.

In poor fishing communities in Minamata, Kuwabara met children who were later recognized as having suffered from Minamata disease when they were still fetuses.

After numerous health complaints in the area, the central government officially recognized Minamata disease in 1956. But the government and chemical company Chisso Corp. continued to deny that the cause of the health problems was mercury discharged in wastewater from Chisso’s factory in Minamata.

Kuwabara said he wanted to show the realities of the disease by shooting photographs that would move people’s hearts.

In 1966, he took a photo of 15-year-old Kumiko Matsunaga, who had been bedridden since the age of 5 because of the disease. Kuwabara only photographed her button-like eyes to convey a beauty that was called “living doll.” She lost her sight and voice and died at the age of 23.

He also took pictures of Tomoko Kamimura, who suffered Minamata disease while in her mother’s womb. Unable to walk or speak, Kamimura died at age 21.

Her mother called her daughter “a precious child who absorbed mercury from my body.”

In 1977, Kamimura’s family dressed her in kimono on her Coming-of-Age Day and took a photo of her family. Her father lifted his daughter in his arms.

The most recent picture in the collection shows Akio Mizoguchi rejoicing in front of the Supreme Court’s building on April 16 this year. On that day, top court’s ruling that recognized his mother, Chie Mizoguchi, as a Minamata disease patient was finalized.

The Kumamoto prefectural government had rejected Chie Mizoguchi’s application for recognition, which would have entitled her to compensation.

She died in 1977, 36 years before her recognition was finally given.

In his photo collection, Kuwabara’s picture of Akio in front of the Supreme Court is displayed beside a photo of his mother taken in July 1960 to show the passage of time.

In October this year, a diplomatic conference in Kumamoto organized by the U.N. Environment Program adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which regulates the use of mercury.

But many people in Japan continue to seek recognition as Minamata disease patients.

“I want to leave photos that can be conveyed to future generations,” Kuwabara said.

The “Shiranuikai” photo exhibition at Ginza Nikon Salon in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward is scheduled to run until Nov. 19.

By RYUICHI KITANO/ Staff Writer
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The eyes of bedridden Minamata disease patient Kumiko Matsunaga. This photo, taken by Shisei Kuwabara in October 1966, was the cover of his photo collection “The Minamata Disaster.” (Provided by Shisei Kuwabara)

The eyes of bedridden Minamata disease patient Kumiko Matsunaga. This photo, taken by Shisei Kuwabara in October 1966, was the cover of his photo collection “The Minamata Disaster.” (Provided by Shisei Kuwabara)

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  • The eyes of bedridden Minamata disease patient Kumiko Matsunaga. This photo, taken by Shisei Kuwabara in October 1966, was the cover of his photo collection “The Minamata Disaster.” (Provided by Shisei Kuwabara)
  • A woman and her grandchild receive health checkups by a Kumamoto University doctor in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in July 1960. About 50 years later, she was identified as Chie Mizoguchi. (Provided by Shisei Kuwabara)
  • Shisei Kuwabara (Photo by Ryuichi Kitano)

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