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Shisei Kuwabara: Minamata Disease, and the Poisoning of a Town

Shisei Kuwabara: Minamata Disease, and the Poisoning of a Town

For sixty years Japanese photographer Shisei Kuwabara has been documenting the city of Minamata and those who suffer from the disease that bears its name.
Modo, one of the villages with the largest number of Minamata disease patients. 1960. © Shisei Kuwabara

The town of Minamata sits along the western coast of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. What differentiated it from the countless other fishing villages in Japan and sealed its place in history was the local Chisso Corporation chemical plant. The plant had originally opened in 1908, but in 1951 the process that was used to make its chemical products was changed. This resulted in the plant’s wastewater, which was dumped into Minamata Bay, containing methylmercury. This highly toxic organic version of mercury settled on the seafloor and was absorbed by the plants in the bay. Thus the mercury made its way into the food chain that ended with those in the city who ate the fish from Minamata Bay.

In April of 1956 a young girl was examined at Chisso’s factory hospital with symptoms including difficulty walking and speaking and having convulsions. This quickly led to the discovery of more cases in the town, and the discovery of Minamata Disease. It is a neurological disease caused by severe mercury poisoning. The symptoms can include muscle weakness, blindness, difficulty speaking, impaired motor skills, and in severe cases insanity, paralysis and coma. Death can occur within weeks of the symptoms showing.

Nippon Chisso Hire K.K. company changed the company name to Chisso. Minamata Factory. Currently, the company name is JNC. 1970. © Shisei Kuwabara
At the Minamata factory, the factory was closed and the labor union (first union) went on strike for a year. At a union rally. 1962. © Shisei Kuwabara

The story of Minamata was made world-famous by photographer W. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen Smith. They spent three years in Minamata documenting what was happening. Their work was first published in LIFE magazine on June 2, 1972 under the title “Death-Flow From a Pipe,” and later as their book Minamata which was published in 1975. That book has also now been turned into the movie Minamata set to be released later this year starring Johnny Depp as Eugene Smith and French-Japanese Actor Minami as Aileen Smith. And while the movie is a dramatized version of the true story of Gene and Aileen and Minamata, it is not the only story of a photographer documenting Minamata.

That Japanese photographer is Shisei Kuwabara, who has spent almost sixty years photographing Minamata and documenting the lives of those who lived there and the effects of the poisoned water that ravaged their families. He began photographing eleven years before the Smiths came to the city and has continued since.

Summer night with the Hannaga family. Minamata, 1960 © Shisei Kuwabara
Fetal Minamata Disease patient Kazumitsu Hannaga,
who suffers from birth defects during his mother’s pregnancy
is fed by his grandfather. 1960 © Shisei Kuwabara

“I was deeply touched by the inhabitants’ plight.”

During the time when Minamata Disease was first discovered and its cause being researched, Kuwabara, now 84, was finishing high school, and gaining an interest in photography. “My father, who worked in the city office in our village, bought me my first camera,” he recalls. “It was a domestically made Petri camera. After graduating from the local high school in my hometown of Tsuwano City, I entered Tokyo Agriculture University as a Civil Engineering major. During my third year at the university, I realized that I really wanted to be a professional photographer and began taking night classes at Tokyo Photo School.”

Upon graduating in 1960, Kuwabara planned to return to his hometown. But as he was leaving Tokyo, a school friend gave him a copy of the May 15, 1960 Weekly Asahi magazine which contained a ten-page story on the discovery of Minamata disease. “After seeing this article, I immediately decided I had to go there to document what was happening in Minamata City.”

“I was deeply touched by their plight,” adds Shisei Kuwabara. “When I was young, my hometown had also suffered the side effects of chemical pollution. The local mining company excavated copper and arsenic was a byproduct of the process. The poison got into the community’s water supply, contaminating the drinking water and damaging the rice crops. Remembering what had transpired during my childhood, I wanted to tell the tragedy unfolding in Minamata.”

Tamano Murano, a patient with Minamata Disease, suddenly has a seizure at Minamata City Hospital. 1960 © Shisei Kuwabara
Iwazo Funaba, a patient with Minamata Disease, taken 10 years after its onset. 1970 © Shisei Kuwabara

In July of 1960, Kuwabara went to Minamata armed with a letter of introduction addressed to Director Noboru Ohashi at Minamata City Hospital written by Tsuneo Komatsu who had authored the Weekly Asahi article. “When I met with Dr. Ohashi, he asked ’What are you going to do with the photos you take?’ I knew I didn’t have the medical background to report about the disease and confessed that I want to become a professional photographer. [I told him] I would like to document Minamata Disease and show them in a photo exhibition. I knew this was a simple answer, but the doctor gave me his permission.”

“The basic concept for my coverage of Minamata Disease was to report on the lives of approximately 10 families,” tells Kuwabara. “My documentary focused on everything that was happening in their daily lives … Most families were photographed multiple times over several years.” 

Jitsuko Tanaka, in the kimono with sister. 1986 © Shisei Kuwabara

“The documentary series by Eugene Smith left a great footprint for Japanese photographers to follow.”

In 1962 the Japanese photographer held his first exhibition of the work at the Fuji Photo Salon in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. The exhibition won him an award from the Japan Photo Critics Association and his first fame as a photojournalist. Then in 1965 the work was published as the book Minamata Disease. That book is what brought the worlds of Kuwabara and Smith together, he recounts.

“The following year (1966), Mr. Kazuhiko Motomura, an acquaintance from my photo school, was going to meet Robert Frank in New York for permission to publish “The Lines of My Hand” in Japan. Motomura brought with him a copy of my Minamata book and while he was in New York City he had an opportunity to show it to Eugene Smith. It was the first time Smith had heard about Japan’s pollution problems and the Minamata Disease.”

Tamano, a Minamata disease patient, suddenly had a seizure in the corridor of Minamata City Hospital. 1960 © Shisei Kuwabara

Kuwabara does not bear any resentment of Gene and Aileen Smith’s work being more widely known. “The documentary series that Eugene Smith produced in Minamata was amazing. It left a great footprint for Japanese photographers to follow.” Kuwabara’s archive from his decades documenting Minamata now numbers over 30,000 negatives.

In the end, after trying to cover up the facts that they knew the wastewater from the plant was the cause of Minamata Disease, the Chisso Corporation was found guilty of corporate negligence. As a result, Chisso has been forced to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to the families of those affected. The disease is also known to cause congenital birth defects, including cerebral palsy, bringing the effects of the pollution to a younger generation even though the plant stopped releasing mercury into the bay in 1968. Today there are approximately 3000 people who are officially recognized as victims of Minamata Disease. The Chisso Corporation still runs a factory in Minamata.

Minamata fishermen have lost their fishing jobs. At Modo village. 1960 © Shisei Kuwabara
Tomoko and father celebrating her “Coming of Age Day”. 1977 © Shisei Kuwabara

In the 1980’s the worst polluted parts of Minamata Bay were dredged to remove the mercury found in the seabed. In 1999 Minamata received ISO certification for its environmental management policies, and was declared an Eco Town, meaning it is an environmental model city by the Japanese government. The city maintains the Minamata Memorial holding the names of the victims of Minamata Disease, as well as the Minamata Disease Museum.

While Minamata started him down the path of photography, Shisei Kuwabara’s career went on to cover more than just the city in his sixty-plus years as a photographer. He has photographed the Korean peninsula documenting the turmoil following the Korean War. In 1967 and 1968 he was reporting on the Vietnam War and was in Saigon during the Tet Offensive when North Vietnamese Troops stormed the U.S. Embassy. He saw the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And he has been involved in documenting several other social issues within Japan. 

It is the memory that his photographs create, and their ability to create a visual record of history that is his ultimate goal. In the case of Minamata, it is part of what drew him back over and over again. “In the words left by my dear friend, ‘Photos are records, if there are no photos, it no longer exists.’ I also feel the same way.”

By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.

Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.

More information on Shisei Kuwabara here.

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