CASE #1: Minamata City in Kumamoto Prefecture, where factory effluent caused severe mercury poisoning, leading to intense social and political conflict.
CASE #2: Along the Agano River in Niigata Prefecture, northern Japan, there was a second incident of mercury poisoning, which came to be known as Niigata-Minamata. In contrast to Kumamoto, where victim suffering slowly gave way to a powerful citizens movement, in Niigata because of a greater social and physical distance between polluter and victim, value and policy changes were not as pronounced, despite the severe human harm and social conflict that occurred.
CASE #1: Lake Biwa, Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, where the national objective of increasing water resources to serve rapidly industrializing cities downstream, led to massive public works projects (including dam construction) which over three decades radically changed the landscape and lifestyles of the lakeshore.
CASE #2: The Nagara River, where a diversified social movement of fishermen and nature enthusiasts with conflicting motives mobilized to fight the construction of a dam on Japan’s last remaining natural river.
The authors demonstrate that in Japan, a shift in terminology from kogai (“public nuisance”) to kankyo mondai (“environmental issues”) reflected a change in the Japanese conception of the man-nature relationship.
Both the Minamata City and the Lake Biwa studies begin in postwar Japan around the 1960s, a period of large-scale and rapid industrial development led by the central government when the country prioritized economic growth and the material, or use, value of nature. By the late 1970s, however, Japanese communities began to reconnect with nature, a development marked by the birth of civic environmental movements—in our cases, the anti-detergent or “Soap Movement” taken up by the lakeshore residents of Lake Biwa in the late 1970s; the anti-dam movement at the Nagara River in the late 1980s; and the government-led initiative to heal Minamata known as the Moyainaoshi Campaign in the 1990s.
While the Minamata victims movement brought Japan’s kogai problems into the public eye for the first time, these later movements were all carried out in the name of kankyo mondai. What became lost in the terminology shift from kogai to kankyo mondai, however, was the claim of victimhood, which is implicit in kogai problems. The new terminology thus represents the influence of elites—in fact, the soap movement was engineered by the prefectural government and the anti-dam movement by a group of leisure fishers—and the obscuring of social injustice in environmental policy decisions and outcomes.
Lake Biwa. Photo Courtesy of Lake Biwa Museum
Firsthand Accounts & Testimonials
- For a book-length volume by a Japanese journalist chronicling the devastation of Minamata disease, the attempts by authorities to cover-up, and the victims’ long struggle for recognition and redress, see Mishima Akio, trans. Richard L. Cage. Bitter Sea: The Human Cost of Minamata Disease [Nake, Shiranui no Umi: Minamata ni Sasageta Chinkon no Tatakai] Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2001. Originally published in Japanese in 1977.
- For a personal testimony of Ogata Masato, the fisher-victim who became a leading spokesman for other disease victims, see Oiwa Keibo, Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Minamata Fisherman [Tokoyo no fune kogite] Narrated by Ogata Masato, translated by Karen Colligan-Taylor. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
- For the earliest account of Minamata disease, see Ishimure Michiko, trans. Livia Monnet. Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease [Kugai Jodo: Waga Minamata-Byo]. Kyoto: Yamaguchi Publishing House, 1987. Originally published in Japanese in 1968.
- Acclaimed photojournalist Eugene Smith’s most famous project was Minamata. His book, Minamata: Words and Photographs coauthored with his wife, Aileen M. Smith, and published in 1975 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston), exposed to the world the devastation of the environmental crisis in Minamata. Eugen Smith was severely beaten by Chisso employees in 1972, and never recovered fully from his injuries. He died in 1978.
- For an informative account by a Kumamoto sociologist on community responses to the tragedy and the role society played in stalling relief and recovery, see Maruyama Sadami, “Responses to Minamata Disease,” in James K. Mitchell, ed. The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1996.
- For a view of the scientific and political aspects of the Minamata story by one of the researchers who worked to prove the link between Minamata and Chisso, see Jun Ui, Industrial Pollution in Japan. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1992. The book gives a particularly useful account of Hosokowa Hajime, a doctor at the community hospital affiliated with the Chisso plant, and the research he pursued about the cause of the disease despite orders from Chisso to cease.
- For a recent historical treatment by an American scholar, see Timothy S. George, Minamata-Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan. Harvard University Press, 2002.
In contrast to the Minamata case, there are few resources on the policy history of Lake Biwa, and even fewer in English. Two useful sites are:
- The Living Lakes Partnership’s Biwa web page gives an overview of the history of the lake’s pollution and the measures taken against it.
- Recent policy update for Shiga Prefecture. The proposal, released by the Lake Biwa Research Institute in early 2006, sets two main goals to be achieved by 2030: reduction of carbon dioxide emission by half and improvement of the water environment in Lake Biwa to attain the level of the late 1960s.
Japan has long been characterized as a group-oriented society that shuns individualism. Yet, in their research the Japan team identified individual actors, or “framers,” who played key roles in attracting attention to the problem by translating local expressions of environmental value into politically powerful terms.Back to top
Ministry of the Environment’s page on the “Minamata disease”
This page presents the Ministry of the Environment’s (formerly the Japan Environment Agency) official policy on Minamata: history, measures taken, and link to the National Institute for Minamata Disease.
Lake Biwa Environmental Research Institute
Founded in 1982, the institute supports interdisciplinary research on the environmental, social and cultural conditions of Lake Biwa and the surrounding area.
Mother Lake 21 Plan
This is the home page for the Shiga Prefectural Government’s long-term vision for Lake Biwa, developed in March 2000, which incorporates principles of resource conservation.
Lake Biwa Today
The Japan Water Agency, an incorporated administrative agency for water management established by the national government, provides information on the administration and effects of the Biwa Comprehensive Development Project and the Lake Biwa Development Project.
Gateway to Japanese environmental websites
A portal maintained, in both Japanese and English, by the non-profit APEC Virtual Center for Environmental Technology to the websites of Japanese governmental and non-governmental environmental organizations.