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Minamata & Fukushima: Structural Violence in Environmental Disaster
- Aileen Mioko Smith
The small city of Minamata, located in the southern island of Kyushu in the Japanese archipelago, is known for an industrial disease named after that city. “Minamata disease” is caused by the ingestion of methyl mercury that was released for more than three decades, beginning in 1937, from a factory owned by the Chisso Corporation. Mercury flowed into Minamata Bay, where it accumulated in and eventually damaged or destroyed the natural environment. Human health—in particular, the fishers who consumed the fish and shellfish they caught—was also affected through the food chain by this environmental disaster. Once mercury enters the human body and accumulates to a sufficient degree, it affects the nervous system, paralyzing one’s body—fingers, legs, and tongue, for example. One eventually loses control of the whole body and often dies an agonizing death. Despite widely observed harm in fish, cats, and humans and the long-held suspicion that the chemicals released by the Chisso factory caused fatal diseases, officials did not confirm the correlation between the disease and Chisso’s wastewater for decades until 1968.
Fast-forward a little over forty years, a nuclear accident, arguably comparable to Chernobyl in its magnitude of damage, took place in Fukushima, Japan, due to power loss caused by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The Japanese government concealed data about radiation exposure from the reactor meltdowns to the public, which prevented them from taking protective actions to avoid harm. The state of emergency that the government issued allowed for radiation levels 20 times higher levels than the standards adopted domestically and internationally, which has not been rescinded to this day, exposing the residents at risk, including pregnant women and children.
Immediately after the nuclear accident in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, Aileen Mioko Smith, who lived in Minamata with Eugene Smith in 1971 through 1974 and later became an anti-nuclear activist, proposed ten critical responses that are common in the aftermath of environmental disasters like Minamata and Fukushima. They are: 1) holding no one accountable for the damage; 2) emphasizing “both sides” of opinions and treating the victimizers and victims equally; 3) dividing the sufferers and having them antagonize each other; 4) collecting no data and thus leaving no evidence behind; 5) buying time by doing nothing; 6) investigating the damage in a way that diminishes its impact; 7) making the sufferers exhausted so that they would give up; 8) defining the category of sufferers narrowly in order to minimize the compensation; 9) sending out little information overseas regarding the damage; 10) organizing international conferences and inviting scholars worldwide who would agree with the government and corporation. In light of these ten commonalities between Minamata and Fukushima insightfully pointed out by Smith, this webinar will explore the structural and systematized violence observed in Minamata and Fukushima while tracing people’s resistance against it.
Referring to the structural violence that was observed in Minamata and Fukushima, including strategic withholding of important information that prevented people from knowing that their lives were unnecessarily put at risk, this panel plans to discuss the following issues: the contemporary implications of mercury poisoning; the mistaken view that nuclear power is one solution for mitigating climate change; people’s struggle and resistance against the corporation’s environmental pollution and the government that allowed such pollution; the role of photojournalism; and how these episodes unfolded in the recently released film Minamata.
MINAMATA Film: https://youtu.be/WP3pKTssw_E
Zoom Meeting Access
April 12, 2022 12:00 PM (Noon) Tokyo – Start
Meeting ID: 932 4535 1283 | Passcode: 106014
Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies
Temple University, Japan Campus
Information: Kyle Cleveland, ICAS Co-Director | Email: email@example.com
ICAS events reflect the opinions of the speakers and participants, and do not represent the views of Temple University or the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies.
Aileen Mioko Smith
Aileen Mioko Smith is an activist and journalist, whose work focuses on environmental justice. She is the Executive Director of Green Action Japan, an anti-nuclear organization established 26 years ago. Before starting Green Action, Smith worked with the LIFE magazine photojournalist W. Eugene Smith photographing the plight and fight for justice of Minamata disease victims in southern Japan. Their photojournalism of this environmental scandal produced some of the most iconic photographs in the history of modern journalism and is widely recognized as bringing international attention to this tragic disaster. Their story was made into the major motion picture “Minamata,” starring Johnny Depp.