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Signs of Life

   “Carrying baskets, they would come to sell them.”

In those days, a peddler from a fishing village about 15 kilometers away would come once or twice a day carrying baskets, full of fish for sale, on both ends of a balance pole. The rhythm of daily life in this period before roads must have been different from today. And Minamata disease began at the dining table—the place of everyday life.


Crops from the mountains would go to the sea, and fish from the sea would go to the mountains.

The rhythm of daily life connected the sea and the mountains here.


Rice paddies were filled with water and planted. The mountains allowed the people to live, and the people prayed to the mountains.

And where a fire was lit, people would gather.


Our society is geared toward the pursuit of convenience. But something may be lost, or we may try to lose something, in its shadow.

I want to listen to the unspoken words that quietly exist there, to the signs of life, and look at them with a calm gaze.


The shadow of Minamata disease sometimes appears in casual conversations and behavior in everyday life here. However, it is not certain whether I, the people around me, and even the people who underwent the experience notice it or not, as we all have different perceptions. I stop while looking at people’s lives here—where the indigenous way of life remains intact, albeit barely, even today—and I think as I walk.


 “Half of residents have Minamata disease symptoms in the mountainous area.”

 In January 2012, my eyes caught the front page of a newspaper. In October 2011, a group health checkup was held at the community center in the village. Thirty-nine of the 78 residents were examined, and 37 of them were confirmed to have Minamata disease symptoms.

Is this current? In the mountains instead of by the sea?

I knew nothing about this situation in the southern part of Kumamoto Prefecture, although I was born and raised in Kumamoto City. A few days later, I headed for the village.

From a port town (Taura, Ashikita-cho, Kumamoto Prefecture) on the shores of the Shiranui Sea, which is usually so quiet that it is rare to see waves with white caps, I went into the mountains. Passing through a mountain densely forested with cedar trees, I saw the village spread out, as if crawling up a mountain, while the sky stretched above.

The village is called Kuroiwa.

Kuroiwa is a mountain village about 40 kilometers from Minamata City, where Chisso’s Minamata plant, which caused Minamata disease, is located.

When I first visited this place, I was bewildered to find that the scenes of daily life were no different from those of other mountain villages. It all seemed to have nothing to do with the words “Minamata disease.”

 Most of the current victims of the Minamata disease incident have chronic-type Minamata disease, with symptoms such as numbness and sensory disturbance at the extremities. Unlike the fulminant-type Minamata disease, in which severe convulsions and confusion were seen in the early stages, the chronic type is difficult to recognize outwardly. For this reason, victims tend to be suspected of lying about having the disease and to be discriminated against, making it difficult for them to speak out. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to hear about victims who did not think they had Minamata disease, as they had ascribed the symptoms to mere aging instead.


In July 2009, the Minamata Disease Special Measures Law was passed. Approximately 38,000 people received relief between the start of applications in May 2010 and the end of applications in July 2012. However, trials are still ongoing among those who could not receive relief because of regional and age exclusions.


The exact number of people affected is not known if we add to those who have been certified those who are uncertified, those who have not applied, and those who are waiting for official confirmation. The numbers can be counted, but the essence of Minamata disease is probably not something that can be expressed in numbers. With each passing month, I realize that it may be a tremendous task to get to the essence of the disease itself and the shadows created by the disease that continue to haunt this area. Nevertheless, it all makes me want to know more.

While walking, I wish to gather uncertain impressions from viewpoints close to those of the residents of Minamata.

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