It began with the cats. In the mid-1950s, dozens of pet cats that roamed freely through the Japanese fishing town of Minamata started acting strangely. They yowled in their ragged cat voices and ran in circles. After a time, they began throwing themselves off jetties to drown in Minamata Bay. No one could understand what was going on.
Not long after that, some people in the town started trembling and walking oddly, looking dazed, and often shouting incomprehensibly as they stumbled through the town. Some suffered interludes of blurred vision and dizziness; others fell into convulsions on the street and lapsed into comas. “Minamata Disease,” as it became known, eventually affected thousands of people, many of them babies born with crippling deformities.
The first four deaths from Minamata disease were officially reported on May 1, 1956, beginning a decades-long battle to discover what turned out to be a manmade scourge. There were two industries on that remote southern island of Kyushu: fishing and a petrochemical factory run by the powerful Chisso Corp. Since 1941, Chisso had been making vinyl chloride at the plant and dumping mercury-contaminated sludge into Minamata Bay where the mercury found its way into the fish and, eventually, the people.
It took another four years and a riot by fishermen at the Kyushu plant to awaken the Japanese press to what was going on, and then decades of legal and political action to bring Chisso to account. The wrangling and buck-passing continue to this day, even as a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of that first report was recently held, with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi present to offer apologies on behalf of the government for not acting quickly enough to stop the spread of the disease.
America and much of the rest of the world didn’t know about what was going on until 1972, when the great photographer W. Eugene Smith and his wife published Minamata, a book-length photoessay about the human and environmental toll wrought by Chisso’s pollution. Smith was equally legendary for the probing human quality of his work, his thorny integrity about the way it was presented, and his willingness to take insane risks to get a picture.
In 1945, while chronicling front-line fighting on Okinawa, Smith suffered facial and hand injuries from a Japanese shell fragment that required years of treatment. The Great War correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was with Smith on Okinawa, predicted that Smith’s idealism would either break him or kill him. Pyle’s prophecy came true during the Minamata project: after being threatened several times, Smith was attacked by hired thugs who grabbed him by the legs and swung him into a concrete wall. The injuries contributed to Smith’s early death in 1978 — hastened by years of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as destitution brought on by his refusal to allow commercial magazines to mess with his images.
I was barely into my teens when Minamata was published, and I can still feel its impact across the years. The image that has stayed with me is the one that came to embody the Minamata tragedy for the entire world: “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.” It shows a young girl, her body twisted and wrenched by mercury poisoning in the womb, being washed in a stand-up bath. The terrible damage done to the girl’s body and the infinite tenderness with which her mother bathes her are captured magnificently by a great journalist whose work helped alert the world to a great crime.Powered by Sidelines