Japan's relentless drive to industrial modernisation since the late 19th century has left many victims in its wake, of whom the direct and congenital recipients of methyl mercury poisoning in Minamata are best known in the West, thanks to the harrowing photographic testimony of Eugene Smith. This is an immorality tale of a remote village down on its luck transformed into a company town by Chisso, an elite, innovative and strategically vital chemicals giant, which then knowingly poisoned its hosts. Most of the dead and deformed had lived from the sea - fishing households at the bottom of an unreformed social order, treated with contempt by the state and the company, and driven to silence by the disdain of their betters. When one family used its meagre compensation to repair its dwelling, a neighbour remarked: "Look at that nice roof. I think I'll get Minamata disease, too." This piece of offhand callousness is one of many anecdotes that illuminate Timothy George's meticulous account, which joins Matthew Allan's masterful social history of the Chikuho Coalfield in exposing the grim underbelly of Japan's transient "economic miracle".
Minamata's isolation empowered the company on whose economic health it depended. Within five years of the discovery of the "mysterious disease", Chisso had bought off the victims of pollution for which it denied responsibility through the "final solution" of a solatium payment.
One of its own employees had discovered the truth but he was obligated into silence. When researchers at the local university came close, they were trumped with bigger, better academics brought in from Tokyo - a reminder of Endo Shusaku's timeless lesson in The Sea and Poison that dubious funding in hard times can induce unspeakable acts within the academy. There were scholar heroes as well though, deploying their skills for the benefit of the victims. Among these, Ui Jun stands out in George's account as someone who supported influential local activists such as Ishimure Michiko and, as the reality dawned, leaders who emerged from the diseased fisherfolk.
Local pressure to sweep the issue - and the newly ill - under the carpet to keep the town's paymaster in business might have worked had not a second outbreak of mercury poisoning in Niigata Prefecture in the more environmentally aware climate of the late 1960s demolished Chisso's first "solution" with a new round of claims and lawsuits. Eventually, the company was bailed out by the state to keep the compensation payments flowing. And to reduce the liability, company and state collaborated to make it as difficult as possible to certify new victims - a task made easier by the use of divide-and-rule tactics and by the willingness of victims to break ranks. By the time the legal battles drew to a close in the 1990s, Minamata disease had claimed 1,400 lives, with the survivors struggling to cope with the added uncertainties of infirm old age.
George frames his story as a struggle for democracy, and his detailed account of grassroots movements, in which patients played a critical and leading role in refusing to be manipulated by outsiders to other ends, is a convincing one, though it is clear that this journey still has far to run.
And there is a contrary subtext, in which what is sought is something older, and far from democratic: a dependent plea for recognition by "those above" of the misery they have brought on the lower orders whom they had a moral duty to protect. This is a struggle not for democracy but for an affirmation of the past. The promise of Japan's citizens movements in the late 1960s gave way to economic uncertainties and fresh conservatism in the 1970s, while the public spending excesses and consumerism of subsequent decades have left Minamata with an excess of memorials and an uneasy engagement with the tourist's gaze.
In his epilogue, George highlights an epic voyage to Tokyo made in a leaking craft by the fisherman and latter-day activist Ogata Masato to highlight the continuing plight of fellow victims of Minamata disease. In a perfect complement, Oiwa Keibo eloquently transcribes Masato's story from early days and a simple life fishing the Shiranui Sea, through the growing shadow of the disease across family, community and livelihood, to a struggle for compensation marked by growing self-awareness and powers of leadership and, in an extraordinary act of redemption, the decision to withdraw from the certification process for which he had fought so long and hard, and take control over his own fate, free of dependency. Ogata rows the eternal sea as the pilot of his soul - disease and its discourse transcended.
Richard Wiltshire is senior lecturer in geography, King's College London.
Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Fisherman
Author - Oiwa Keibo and Ogata Masato
ISBN - 0 7425 0021 7
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Price - £18.95
Pages - 195