A Visit to Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture

50+ years after seeing a Life magazine photo essay about Minamata disease
Minamata Mayor Toshiharu Takaoka and Gary Mukai Minamata Mayor Toshiharu Takaoka and Gary Mukai; courtesy Minamata City

When I was a child, my parents subscribed to Life magazine. Some of the photographs from Life editions have remained seared in the back of my mind. The assassination of President Kennedy was one of the major shocks of my childhood and I vividly remember the Kennedy funeral edition cover photograph. One of my family friends came back from the Vietnam War as a quadriplegic and later died and I remember how much the multiple photos of wounded American soldiers in several editions affected me. During my last month in high school, I saw an article, “Death-Flow from a Pipe: Mercury Pollution Ravages a Japanese Village,” and photographs about Minamata disease that appeared in the June 2, 1972 edition of Life. Minamata disease is a neurological disease caused by severe mercury poisoning and was first discovered in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in industrial wastewater by Chisso Corporation and the consumption of the contaminated fish and shellfish. The photos of deformed victims caused by Minamata disease really haunted me as a child.

During my time with SPICE, I had the honor of working with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and during the development of a curricular project, “Music Travels the Silk Road,” Calliope: Exploring World History (January 2007, Volume 17, Number 5) that was developed specifically for sixth grade teachers in the New York City Public Schools, I learned about Silk Road Ensemble musician Ko Umezaki’s visit to Minamata City. Reading about his visit brought back memories of the Life magazine photos from 1972. 

My father was born in Minamata. My grandparents’ business, Umezaki Seizaisho (梅崎製材所), was located on what is now the M’s City department store. I have many memories of visiting Minamata while growing up in Tokyo, like going to Ume-no-Yu (梅の湯), Yunoko Onsen (湯の児温泉), and the bridge my father used to do diving from into the Minamata River. It has always been a special place for me. — Ko Umezaki

In 2020, I was reminded yet again of the Life photographs of Minamata disease when the film Minamata was released. The film shows Minamata through remembrances by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith, who moved to Minamata in 1971 to document the suffering and challenges of the victims and their families.

Over 50 years after I saw the Minamata photographs in Life magazine, Shorenstein APARC Global Affiliate Visiting Scholar Makoto Shishido reconnected me with former Shorenstein APARC Global Affiliate Visiting Scholar Hiroki Hara, who is currently Director-General of the General Affairs Planning Department, Minamata City Hall. They invited me to meet with five students from Minamata High School via Zoom. The students made very impressive presentations on issues in Minamata and I had one of the most meaningful conversations with students in my career in education. Fortunately, during a trip to Japan last month, I had the chance to visit Minamata City for the first time in my life. 

I had the honor of meeting Minamata Mayor Toshiharu Takaoka and was so inspired by the environment-focused recognition the city has received over the years and impressed by Mayor Takaoka’s vision for his city. In 2011, Minamata won the Japanese Top Eco-City contest and Minamata was selected as “SDGs Future City” in 2020. My family’s ancestral roots are in Hiroshima City and I have often been asked if it is safe to visit, and residents of Minamata City are asked this as well. Minamata was given a clean bill of health in 1997. Mayor Takaoka and I reflected on this issue and also spoke about the effect of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011 and how it has shaped the current public image of the prefecture. 

students standing in front of Minamata Disease Cenotaph

Following my meeting with Mayor Takaoka, I had the pleasure of meeting the five Minamata High School students whom I had met via Zoom. They as well as Director-General Hara, the Minamata Environmental Academia Secretary General Kayo Fuchigami, and Minamata High School Planning Manager Yoshiko Nishikii accompanied me to picturesque Minamata Bay. It was hard to imagine that the bay was once heavily polluted. We also visited the Hyakken drainage outlet, which was the originating point of Minamata disease, and also spent time in Eco Park Minamata, which included a stroll through a bamboo forest. I remember thinking of the residents of Minamata as having the characteristics of bamboo, being able to sway with the winds yet remaining sturdy. In the photo above, the students and I are standing in front of the Minamata Disease Cenotaph; photo courtesy Minamata City. 


I also had the opportunity to give a short lesson on Japanese American history to the students. Kumamoto Prefecture (like Hiroshima Prefecture) is the ancestral home of thousands of Japanese Americans and I thought that the topic would be of interest to them. Throughout my time with the students, I was so impressed with their attentiveness and their questions. Photo above courtesy Minamata City. 

The five students not only taught me about the tragic history in their city but also illustrated how they have learned important lessons from the history, and they as high school students offered such rays of hope and symbols of the promise of Japan’s young generation. I hope that someday SPICE will be able to work again with high school students in Minamata. I have so much more to learn from Minamata and its leaders like Mayor Takaoka and its students. 

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