Pollution, Disease, and the Camera’s Transfixing Eye

In the summer of 1978, I was traveling in Europe and the British Isles with my husband, who is a photographer, and with our young children. It was a long anticipated journey and we were overwhelmed by what we found–the architectural magnificence, the bewildering richness and variety of medieval artwork, the foreignness of foreign languages, the happy pleasures of food and wine.

In Florence we encountered our first Pietà. It was very moving, a quite lovely work of art by Michelangelo, but for me, the great irony of the trip was that a contemporary Pietà–a black and white photograph which we found in London at a retrospective of the work of the American photographer W. Eugene Smith–made a greater visual impression on us. Quite simply, Smith’s picture bowled us over.

There were other images in the Smith exhibit which struck us forcefully. Many were familiar–a Pittsburgh steelworker in white-rimmed goggles that made him appear extra-terrestrial–a visually stunning picture of a Spanish woman spinning flax–a montage like portrait of Albert Schweitzer in his African leper colony, a black workman seated above and behind him in the shadows.

Smith’s Pietà, though, held a special significance for us. This photograph–a portrait of absolute love in the face of irredeemable sorrow–is much more than a record of a moment that is unforgettable both in content and in its exquisite play of light and dark. It is an icon for our times, the capstone of a long and difficult effort by Smith and his Japanese/American wife, Aileen, to tell the story of the devastating illness which is known as Minimata Disease.

If there had been no W. Eugene Smith, in fact, the mysterious illness which struck the Japanese fishing village of Minimata in the 1950s might have remained an obscure footnote in medical texts and in the law courts of Japan. A pollution-induced nightmare, Minimata Disease might have received little more notice in the wider world than a tree falling in a silent wilderness. But because of the passionate camera of Smith, people everywhere learned of the disaster and learned to fear the possibility of disability and death from mercury introduced into the food chain through industrial waste.

For Smith, the book Minimata was both his last great work before his death in 1978, and the synthesis of a lifetime of searching through the camera’s eye for an art which would serve humanity. In his great photographs of World War II and his later remarkable photo essays for Life on subjects as divergent as a Spanish village and an American country doctor, the emotional impact of Smith’s strongest images was often a catalyst to their aesthetic appeal.

With the Minimata story, however, Smith found a different plane of expression. Each photograph is tied so vividly to the plight of the victims it represents that the viewer cannot find a safe vantage point to stand back and gaze from afar. The pictures draw one relentlessly inside to the pain and courage which they document. The Pietà itself, “Tomoko Uemura Is Bathed by Her Mother,” uses the classic formulation which Smith’s biographer, Ben Maddow, identifies in his description of Smith’s earlier photograph of a Spanish wake: “Here…(is) Smith’s most powerful and natural composition: the interlocking triangles of space, the victim horizontal, the mourners vertical.”1 Both the design and the extraordinary light of this beautiful photograph of a mother and her wounded child force us to look. We cannot turn away.

And when we do look, we are shaken to our hearts by the terrible devastation of the disease that we see.

Like many illnesses–Lyme Disease comes quickly to mind–Minimata Disease owes its name to the happenstance of the place where it appeared. There was nothing intrinsic to the soil or nature of Minimata that made it a village which would kill or harm thousands of its inhabitants. There were two factors, though, which together bred destruction: first of all, the Chisso Corporation, a maker of plastics, dumped the waste from a mercury compound it used in production directly into Minamata Bay; secondly, the villagers of Minimata were fisherman who lived with the sea, not only selling their catch from the bay but taking most of their food from it.

The first official cases of Minimata Disease were reported in 1956. In retrospect it is evident that cases had started by 1953 or even earlier, but in 1956 Minimata was clearly suffering from an epidemic. The disease itself was baffling. It began without warning. In some families, one person was affected. In others several members or everyone became ill, and in some instances the disease was congenital. Because both the severity and nature of the symptoms varied widely, early diagnoses included everything from cerebral palsy and encephalitis to alcoholism and syphilis. In acute cases, patients exhibited convulsions, delirium, and a total lack of mental and physical control. By 1959, a list of observed symptoms included sensation disturbance, visual, hearing, and coordination problems, tremor, pathological reflexes, salivation, and mental disturbances.2 Some patients were dead within weeks of the onset of their illness. Others were disabled and virtually helpless for years.

It was also in 1959 that the cause of Minimata Disease was finally established. Having ruled out the possibility that the illness was contagious, various researchers tested a host of chemical agents and determined that Minimata Disease was caused by organic methyl mercury poisoning, their findings coinciding with evidence of similar poisonings that had occurred in an English factory in 1940. Researchers also proved conclusively that the source of the mercury was the industrial waste water from the Chisso Corporation. Chisso, which had insistently resisted investigation and had covered up the findings of its own staff doctor that showed the Chisso plant was the source of the poison, agreed to give token settlements to “verified” victims of mercury poisoning provided they agreed to sign a contract releasing Chisso from any further liability and to accept the idea that payments were consolation for “misfortune,” and not indemnities.3  In addition, Chisso installed a Cyclator which was designed to treat waste water. From 1959 on, the public believed that Chisso was no longer poisoning Minimata Bay.

Although the mystery of the cause of Minimata Disease was solved and a seeming remedy in place, the problems of the disease did not disappear. There were, first of all, the people who had the disease and were trying to live with its effects. From the earliest days of the illness, a certain stigma had been attached to its sufferers. There were the incorrect diagnoses, of course, which implied a kind of responsibility on the part of victims for their own condition. Furthermore, there were the fears of other inhabitants that the disease was contagious and a “general attitude among non-sufferers that there was something loathsome about the victims of such a trouble,”4 that anyone visited with this sort of scourge was being punished for evil-doing. In addition, there was a deep-seated fear in Minimata that if Chisso were held too closely responsible for the disease, its role as a major employer would be threatened and the livelihoods of many people destroyed. The town, with all its troubles, found itself deeply divided.

For the families of patients, there were also great financial and physical difficulties in providing for them. There was no government support and in cases where the head of a household had died or was disabled, families struggled to survive on little or no income. There was also a particularly harsh twist of fate for mothers of children who were born with congenital Minimata Disease. Among the research findings on the disease, there was definite evidence that all of these mothers had one thing in common: all had eaten an abundance of fish and shellfish from Minimata Bay during their pregnancies. Since there is a Japanese tradition of saving umbilical cords, it was possible to establish clearly that methyl mercury traveled from a mother’s body through the placenta to the fetus. This explained the phenomenon of a seemingly healthy mother giving birth to a child with Minimata Disease. In a heartbreaking reversal of roles, the child acted as protector to the parent. Like a magnet, the child drew the poison from its mother’s body to itself and was born with congenital Minimata Disease.

By the late-1960’s, a new turn developed in the Minimata story. Although the Chisso Cyclator had been in operation from 1959-1968, there continued to be more and more reports of new Minimata Disease cases. Because of bureaucratic foot-dragging and a general sense of denial about the issue, very few people were actually “verified” by the government-appointed board of physicians as having the disease. It was now clear, though, that the Cyclator had done nothing to solve the mercury problem and that death-dealing pollution had continued unabated. In 1968, Chisso changed its method of production and ceased dumping mercury waste into the bay in Minimata. Yet even that change did not stop the pollution threat. The bay itself was so silted in with mercury deposits that its fish continued to carry their poison. The harvest from the sea was still a harvest of death. Then in 1965 another place began to experience the effects of mercury poisoning. Like Minimata, the village of Niigata had had industrial wastes poured into the waters that fed into its fishing area, but since the plant involved was many miles away, local citizens did not have the mixed loyalties that had been the rule in Minimata. In 1967, seeing the results of methyl mercury pollution and its threat to them, the citizens of Niigata who were affected by the poisoning filed a court case.

When the victims of the Chisso pollution in Minimata learned of this case, many of them decided upon a new form of activism. They knew that they and their families and friends were paying the price of Chisso’s prosperity and, in spite of the earlier “consolation” or mimai contracts which had been signed, in 1969 twenty-nine mimai families took Chisso to court. There were families to be provided for, lost wages to be recovered, patients to be cared for with continuing support money. Also, there was a wrong to be righted.

But the new attitude on the part of some people did not heal the divisions in Minimata. Now, there were not only differences between those who had been affected by the disease and those who hadn’t, but serious differences of opinion among the sufferers themselves. There were three groups of patients–the “leave it up to the other people” group, the “trial” group composed of many people who had become ill before 1959, and a group of newly ill patients who became known as “the direct action” group. The split over tactics gave rise to increased bitterness and, ultimately, when the direct action people confronted Chisso in their corporate offices, actual violence.

For W. Eugene Smith, despite the significance of Minimata in the last years of his life, in 1969 it was not yet a name that had entered his consciousness. Smith was no stranger to Japan. In the early 1960’s he had spent a year working in Japan on a photo assignment for the Japanese company Hitachi, and as a photographer in World War II he had been a wounded by Japanese fire on Okinawa. In 1969 when Minimata sufferers were filing suit against Chisso, Smith still carried Japanese shrapnel lodged near his spinal cord.

It was in 1970, when Smith wrote to a Japanese friend about taking a photo show to Japan, that he and Aileen learned about Minimata and its unfolding drama. The response he received to his query was a positive one. Yes, bring your pictures. Come as well, though, to take pictures. Bring your eye to Minimata to capture what has happened here.

Smith’s plans for this new trip to Japan were simple enough at the outset. Because of his own complex nature however–his seeming ability to bring chaos to everything in his life but the images he made–the journey he took was layered in complexity. And too, there was the experience of Minamata itself, the overwhelming fact of what had happened to its people which roused every inch of Smith as photographer, journalist and man. A trip scheduled for two months grew to a journey of three years, and Smith, following the habits of a lifetime, became both observer and participant as he photographed and wrote about Minimata. His journalistic credo was plain: he did not hope to be “objective” but rather to put his energy “to the task of honestly understanding the subject.”5 The method he followed was one he had often used. He did not photograph from the outside. Instead, for fifteen dollars a month, he and Aileen rented a primitive house in an area of Minamata where earlier there had been a large outbreak of disease. They lived as their neighbors did, eating vegetables from the garden, rice and fish from the bay. Slowly, Smith gained the trust of the people he met until he was one of them, until his documenting of their lives became as much second nature to them as to him. He and Aileen, who was his translator as well as a fellow photographer and writer, became the confidants and friends of the Minamata patients in their protests and court suit, in their lives and work, their schools and homes.

In the end, Smith, who had lived most of his adult life with injury and with illnesses which included alcoholism, himself became a victim of Minimata. Though he did not contract its disease, he was beaten by Chisso union members while he waited with members of the direct action group at Chisso headquarters. Hurled headfirst against a cement pavement, he suffered severe injuries to the vertebrae in his neck that could not be surgically corrected because of the shrapnel near his spinal cord. The result for him was excruciating pain, headaches, dizziness, and near blindness. According to Maddow, “If he lifted his hands to use the camera, he would sometimes faint.” When he tried to work he could do so only “by pressing the cable release with his tongue.”6 For Smith, Minimata had become finally a story of dual ironies: a journalist with a Japanese war wound and Minimata injury compounding each other, a photographer documenting a story of disability by a fierce daily struggle with his own body.

It is evident, of course, that W. Eugene Smith showed both remarkable physical and mental stamina in documenting Minimata and its story, but he would have been the last to say he had a monopoly on strength of will among the inhabitants of Minimata. The heroes of his book are the patients with Minimata Disease and their families, and the examples of their fortitude are unending. Surely there is remarkable patience and love etched in the face of Mrs. Uemura as she holds Tomoko in the bath. There is determination in Tsuginori Hamamoto who lost both parents to Minimata Disease and who, in spite of severe difficulty in walking and in speaking, worked to support himself cultivating mikan trees and became one of the direct action group’s most eloquent advocates. And there is desire in Shinobu Sakamoto, born with Minimata Disease and entering adulthood knowing both the dreams of young womanhood and the reality of her disease.

In the text of Minimata, Smith tells the story of one woman whose bold inventiveness in the face of disability can speak for many. Smith writes,

I shall cherish always such moments as first seeing Mrs. Sugimoto dance, a dance so coquettish, so flirtatious that I could feel only the smile of romance and warmth. Her dance was very stylized and I assumed it was traditional. Later, much later, I was to learn that the lovely dance was stylized somewhat by tradition, but more by hands that were nearly inflexible and by a body that she had to overcome. She had improvised…and she was triumphant.7

But perhaps the single thing which most clearly shows the extraordinary self-empowerment of the Minimata patients is the fact that they themselves were the ones who took on both Chisso and the Japanese government in a relentless battle to win indemnities for the crime of methyl mercury poisoning. It was they who took their rage directly to Chisso and demanded recognition.

And they won. By January of 1975, the Chisso Corporation had accepted blame for the Minimata disaster they had created and had paid over eighty million dollars in settlements and support payments to the victims they had poisoned.

It would be a real cause for rejoicing if one could say unequivocally that the story of Minimata has a happy ending. But money does not undo suffering. Nor is it possible, given the subsequent history of global pollution, to claim that Minimata has offered a sufficiently cautionary tale. Indeed, during the very time that the Minimata direct action patients were confronting Chisso with their claims, the government of Ontario, Canada was showing only mild concern over the discovery of mercury in the fish of one of its rivers. And when Minimata was published in 1975, though it was widely seen and discussed and was understood as the warning Smith meant it to be, an exhibit of Minimata photographs was not a success. According to Maddow, “Attendance was poor, perhaps because the interest in pollution–almost a religious crusade in the late sixties and early seventies–had, like other contemporary phenomena, unaccountably subsided.”8

There is an ongoing character to the Minimata story. In spite of the significant victories of the Minimata patients over Chisso, according to the March, 1988 Economist, that year “six different Minimata cases (were) still stuck in Japan’s arthritic legal system, partly because class actions do not exist in Japanese law.”9 The Economist further notes that it was not until that very month that Chisso’s president and the Minimata plant manager were finally found guilty of criminal negligence. Meanwhile Japan has continued to suffer from “red plankton” and a widespread scarcity of fish in its rivers and lakes.

And so the story does not really have an end nor give W. Eugene Smith the legacy of environmental awareness that he passionately wanted. When he died in October of 1978, a cable arrived from Japan from three of his friends in Minimata. Maddow quotes it:



It is a warm and loving tribute and–given the impermanence of footsteps left in the sand along the sea and the dulling memory of our race and of our times–unbearably poignant.

1. Ben Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice. (New York: Aperture, 1985), 41.
2. W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith, Minimata (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1975), 181.
3. Smith, 32.
4. Smith, 61.
5. Smith, 7.
6. Maddow, 74.
7. Smith, 112.
8. Maddow, 77.
9. “How the Air Fares, The Economist Mar. 19, 1988: 94.
10. Maddow. 78.

Photograph by W. Eugene Smith;  © Aileen M. Smith

Note: This article was originally published in the Summer/Fall 1990 issue of Kaleidoscope: International Magazine of Literature, Fine Arts, and Disability. While the image of Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother, referred to in the article as Smith’s Pietà, has been widely disseminated, the Uemura family has requested that rights to reproduce it no longer be granted.


Permanent link to this article: http://emilymeier.com/poetry/essays/minimata