Minamata disease, sometimes referred to as Chisso-Minamata disease, is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. A congenital form of the disease can also affect fetuses in the womb.
Minamata disease was first discovered in Minamata city in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation's chemical factory, which continued from 1932 to 1968. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which when eaten by the local populace resulted in mercury poisoning. While cat, dog, pig, and human deaths continued over more than 30 years, the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.
As of March 2001, 2,265 victims had been officially recognised (1,784 of whom had died) and over 10,000 had received financial compensation from Chisso. By 2004, Chisso Corporation had paid $86 million in compensation, and in the same year was ordered to clean up its contamination. On March 29, 2010, a settlement was reached to compensate as-yet uncertified victims.
A second outbreak of Minamata disease occurred in Niigata Prefecture in 1965. Both the original Minamata disease and Niigata Minamata disease are considered two of the Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan.
Photographic documentation of Minamata started in the early 1960s. One photographer who arrived in 1960 was Kuwabara Shisei, straight from university and photo school. The first exhibition of his work in Minamata was held in the Fuji Photo Salon in Tokyo in 1962, and the first of his book-length anthologies Minamata was published in Japan in 1965. He has returned to Minamata many times since.
However, it was a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith that brought world attention to Minamata disease. He and his Japanese wife lived in Minamata from 1971 to 1973. The most famous and striking photo of the essay, Uemura Tomoko in Her Bath, (1972) shows Uemura Ryoko, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned by methylmercury while still in the womb. The photo was very widely published. It was posed by Smith with the cooperation of Ryoko and Tomoko in order to dramatically illustrate the consequences of the disease. It has subsequently been withdrawn from circulation at the request of Tomoko's family, and therefore does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith's works. Smith and his wife were extremely dedicated to the cause of the victims of Minamata disease, closely documenting their struggle for recognition and right to compensation. Smith was himself attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees in an incident in Goi, Ichihara city, near Tokyo on January 7, 1972, in an attempt to stop the photographer from further revealing the issue to the world. The 54 year-old Smith survived the attack, but his sight in one eye deteriorated and his health never fully recovered before his death in 1978.
The prominent Japanese documentary filmmaker Tsuchimoto Noriaki made a series of films, starting with Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971), documenting the incident and siding with the victims in their struggle against Chisso and the government.