Skip to main content
Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI professor talks about Japan’s Minamata chemical disaster and historic mercury treaty signed in October, 2013

Media Contact: Elizabeth Rau, 401-874-2116

Timothy George is a global expert on 1950s disaster that poisoned thousands

KINGSTON, R.I. — Oct. 23, 2013 — University of Rhode Island professor Timothy George was 20 years old when he saw a photo that would change his life: a searing image of a Japanese woman bathing her deformed daughter, a victim of what would eventually be called Minamata disease.

George, then a student at Stanford, felt a visceral reaction to the iconic photo and realized immediately that there was a “dark side’’ to Japan’s high growth beginning in the 1950s.

He would go on to become a scholar in Japanese culture and history – and a global expert on the Minamata environmental catastrophe that left thousands of people in southern Japan with brain damage, paralysis, convulsions and other ailments after eating fish contaminated with a mercury compound dumped in the water by a chemical company.

The decades-long disaster made headlines again when representatives from 140 countries gathered earlier this month in Minamata to sign a global agreement to reduce mercury in the environment. Journalists throughout the world contacted George to talk about the disaster and the environmental significance of the treaty.

In a question-and-answer session with URI, George, 58, of Wakefield, chair of the Department of History, discusses his book, Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan, his new research about arsenic pollution in Japan, the historic mercury treaty, and global industrial pollution.

Tell us about your childhood. Were you inspired by any environmental causes as a boy?

Yes, but the word we used then was “conservation.” I loved camping and hiking, and in high school and college I read Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and Edward Abbey. I began taking photographs at the age of nine, and have always been inspired by the great outdoor photographers such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell.

When and why did you start researching the Minamata disaster? Why did you find it compelling – and moving?

I studied Minamata for my Harvard Ph.D. thesis. John Dower, the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of Japan’s transwar history who had lived next door to me in Japan, read an article in the Asahi Shinbun about one of many Minamata-related court cases, and called me up to suggest I choose Minamata for my thesis. It was a challenge to deal with something so big and so tragic, and Minamata was not a subject I could study inside archives. I once carried a paralyzed congenital Minamata disease victim on my back, and many of the people I interviewed cried while they shared their stories. Those are not the sorts of things for which Ph.D. programs prepare you.

What was your reaction seeing the iconic 1971 photo of a Japanese woman bathing her deformed daughter in a tub?

“Tomoko and Mother in the Bath” is the famous photo by W. Eugene Smith, who had earlier perfected the art of the photo essay at Life magazine. It really is one of the iconic photographs of the 20th century, along with such photos as Nick Ut’s picture of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked from a napalm attack on her village in Vietnam, or the photos of “tank man” in Beijing the day after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. I was and am struck, more than anything else, by the quiet dignity and strength of Yoshiko Kamimura as she bathed her daughter Tomoko, who had been born blind and paralyzed with congenital Minamata disease. It is a brilliant and powerfully moving photograph, with masterful lighting and a pose echoing Michelangelo’s Pietà. I first saw the photo in the 1975 book Minamata, which Gene Smith and his wife Aileen published after living in Minamata for several years.

Let’s talk about details of the incident. What happened at the Chisso Chemical Plant in Minamata?

From 1932 to 1968, the factory used mercury as a catalyst in the production of acetaldehyde, a chemical used to make plastics. The mercury became organic methymercury in the process and was discharged untreated into the sea with the factory’s wastewater. There it was concentrated in the food chain and consumed by people in this fishing and factory community when they ate fish and shellfish.

When did people realize that they were being poisoned? What were their symptoms?

The realization was gradual. First people noticed fish floating on the surface, crows falling into the sea, and cats — important in fishing communities to keep rats from destroying their nets — gyrating wildly and falling into the sea. In fact, one of the early names for the disease was “dancing cat disease.” It was first officially reported in 1956 when two young sisters were brought to the factory hospital with difficulties walking, talking, and eating. All that was certain at first was that it was a disease of the central nervous system, and many of the earliest and most severely affected patients developed convulsions and died.

How did the company respond? How did the government react?

The company of course denied responsibility. Dr. Hosokawa, the head of the company hospital who had examined those young sisters and first reported the disease, carried out secret experiments in which he fed factory waste to cats. When his famous “cat #400” died of the disease and was autopsied, he reported his findings to factory management and was ordered to stop his experiments and keep them secret. The Ministry of Health and Welfare appointed a research team based at the prefectural university nearby, but in 1959 when the group was ready to issue a preliminary report implicating Chisso, it was disbanded and the report was quashed.

The company concluded an agreement with patients that paid them sympathy money without admitting responsibility, and required them to promise never to demand more or sue, even if it was proven in the future that the company was the cause. Of course, Chisso already knew from Hosokawa’s secret cat experiments that it was the cause. Chisso also installed a pollution control device called a Cyclator, but did not announce that the Cyclator did not remove dissolved mercury from its wastewater. Still, these payments and the Cyclator convinced virtually everyone that the problem was solved by the end of 1959.

When did the company finally acknowledge responsibility?

In 1968, Chisso stopped using mercury to produce acetaldehyde. Perhaps not coincidentally, later that same year the government finally announced its conclusion that mercury in factory waste caused the disease, both in Minamata and later in Niigata, north of Tokyo, where another factory using the same process had polluted a major river and sickened many more people. That same year, Japan’s GDP passed West Germany’s to become the third largest in the world behind the United States and the Soviet Union. Most people felt economically secure, and began to think that Japan could afford to pay some of the costs of cleaning up its pollution. Still, Chisso continued to deny responsibility until patients finally filed suit against the company in 1969 and won their case in 1973, when they were awarded the largest judicial settlement in Japanese history up to that time.

What did Japan learn from the catastrophe? What did other countries learn? Are the world’s waters free of mercury because of Minamata?

In large part thanks to the movements by pollution victims and their nationwide networks of supporters, Japan in 1970 and 1971 quickly passed a series of strict pollution control laws and established an Environment Agency. Citizens invented a range of new strategies for protest, in particular the “one share movement” in which patients and supporters each purchased a share of Chisso stock and were then able to attend the company’s 1970 shareholder’s meeting, where they confronted the company president on national television. So for Japanese, Minamata represents not only the dark side of high growth, but also the flowering of the citizens’ movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Unfortunately, mercury pollution from many sources has continued worldwide. One source that many of us in the Northeast have heard about is the burning of coal in power plants. Mercury in the coal is released into the atmosphere and falls into rivers and lakes, which has led to health warnings and recommended consumption limits for fish in many places. The international treaty on mercury that was just signed in Japan, officially called the “Minamata Convention,” is intended to restrict, reduce, and where possible eliminate the use of mercury worldwide.

Tell us about your new research about arsenic pollution in Japan.

In Minamata I met a photographer, Jin Akutagawa, who had long been photographing and working on behalf of victims of poisoning from an arsenic mine in the tiny mountain hamlet of Toroku in Miyazaki prefecture. That arsenic poisoning became Japan’s fourth officially recognized pollution disease (Minamata disease having been the first). I went to Toroku in 2008 to begin my research, and this year published a chapter on Toroku’s environmental history from neolithic times to the present in a collection of essays by scholars of Japan’s environment, Japan at Nature’s Edge. I spent the 2012-13 academic year on sabbatical in Japan on a Fulbright grant, affiliated at the Institute of Social Science at the University of Tokyo, doing further research on Toroku for a full-length book.

The most fascinating things about the Toroku story have turned out to be the ways its environment has linked it to the wider world. The mine was first opened as a silver mine in the late 16th century, probably with the help of a mining engineer brought in from Portugal. The mine was reopened in the early 20th century, a global age of chemicals, as an arsenic mine. One destination of Toroku’s arsenic was the United States, where before the invention of DDT arsenic was used in pesticides sprayed on cotton fields to combat boll weevils. Toroku’s arsenic was also in chemical weapons used by the Japanese military in China in World War Two.

The mine was closed in 1962, but it was not until after the Minamata movement that the Toroku victims were able to garner support and sue for redress. After a settlement imposed by the Supreme Court in 1990, the locally-based citizens’ group that had worked to support the victims transformed itself into an international NGO, the Asia Arsenic Network, which works mostly in Bangladesh. It turns out that many of the deep aquifers in Southeast Asia contain high levels of arsenic, washed down by the major rivers that originate in the Himalayas. Efforts in recent decades to drill deep wells to save people from drinking contaminated surface water unintentionally replaced one problem — bacteriological diseases — with another: arsenic poisoning. Never did I imagine that studying Japan’s environmental history would lead me to Bangladesh, which I visited this past February.

Both Minamata and Toroku illustrate one of the lessons of environmental history: there is no such thing as the history of just one little place. Every place is connected to every other. Minamata and Toroku also illustrate another theme of much recent environmental history: human bodies are part of the environment, and so what is in the environment, including the toxins we dump into it, ends up inside our bodies. When we poison the environment, we are poisoning ourselves.

What happened to Tomoko Kamimura, the girl in the 1971 photo who was horribly deformed by mercury? Born in 1956, the girl was poisoned in her mother’s womb, leaving her blind, deaf, and with useless legs.

Tomoko Kamimura died in 1977 at the age of 21. She never spoke, heard, or walked, but her image — and her presence at the many meetings and demonstrations to which her parents brought her — had a powerful impact on the movement and the world. She and the other congenital Minamata disease patients also sparked a reconsideration of what medical students had previously been taught about natural barriers in the body that supposedly kept toxins out of the brain and out of fetuses in pregnant women. Methylmercury, it turns out, is actually absorbed and concentrated in those very two places inside the human body. Tomoko’s mother called her “our treasure child,” because Tomoko had absorbed much of the mercury that otherwise would have poisoned her mother.


BIO: Timothy George has taught at URI since 1998. He did his undergraduate studies at Stanford and received his master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and his doctorate from Harvard. He taught at Harvard as a visiting professor in 2004-05. A chapter based on his Toroku research appears in Japan at Nature's Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power (edited by Ian Miller, Julia Thomas, and Brett Walker, 2013). He is also the author of Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan (2001; a Chinese translation has just been published in 2013), coeditor with Christopher Gerteis of Japan since 1945: From Postwar to Post-bubble (2013), and coauthor with John Dower of Japanese History and Culture from Ancient to Modern Time: Seven Basic Bibliographies (second edition, 1995). He has also published a number of translations.


Pictured above: Dr. Naoji Hagino; Dr. Hisashi Saito, author of Nigata Minamata Disease (co-translated by Timothy George); Timothy George, chair of the history department at the University of Rhode Island; Kazuo Imai and his wife, both patients; and Michelle Daigle, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Hawaii who is researching Minamata disease. Photo courtesy of Jane George.