TED Case Studies

Minamata Disaster

     CASE NUMBER:        246
     CASE NAME:          Minamata, Japan Disaster


1.  The Issue

Over 3,000 victims have been recognized as having "Minamata
Disease".  It has taken some of these people over thirty years to
receive compensation for this inconceivable event.  In 1993, nearly
forty years later, the Japanese courts were still resolving
suitable compensation for the victims.  Many people have lost their
lives, suffered from physical deformities, or have had to live with
the physical and emotional pain of "Minamata Disease".  This
suffering is all a result of the very wrongful and negligent acts
of the Chisso Corporation who dumped mercury into the sea water and
poisoned the people of Japan.

2.  Description

Minamata is a small factory town dominated by the Chisso
Corporation.  The town faces the Shiranui Sea, and Minamata Bay is
part of this sea.  In Japanese, "Chisso" means nitrogen.  The
Chisso Corporation was once a fertilizer and carbicle company, and
gradually advanced to a petrochemical and plastic-maker company. 
From 1932 to 1968, Chisso Corporation, a company located in
Kumamoto Japan, dumped an estimated 27 tons of mercury compounds
into Minamata Bay.  Kumamoto is a small town about 570 miles
southwest of Tokyo.  The town consists of mostly farmers and
fisherman.  When Chisso Corporation dumped this massive amount of
mercury into the bay, thousands of people whose normal diet
included fish from the bay, unexpectedly developed symptoms of
methyl mercury poisoning.  The illness became known as the
"Minamata Disease".  The mercury poisoning resulted from years of
environmental destruction and neglect from Chisso Corporation.

In 1907 the villagers of Minamata convinced the founder of Chisso
Corporation to build a factory in their town, hoping to benefit
from the wealth of industrialization.  The owner, Jun Noguchi
agreed to the development, but used the people from Minamata as
simple factory workers  The more elite positions, such as engineers
and managers were "imported" as he termed it, from the finest
universities, like Tokyo University.

By 1925, the Chisso Corporation was dumping waste into Minamata Bay
and destroying the fishing areas.  The theory behind Noguchi's
industry was to pay off the Minamata fisherman in exchange for
damaging their fishing environment.  According to Eugene Smith's
interview of the people who lived in Minamata, the company believed
that it was much cheaper to pay off the few people who were opposed
to the dumping, rather than implement an environmentally safe
technique of waste removal.  Therefore, since the villagers
accepted this practice through compensation of money, and the
government was behind the industry, the entire process appeared

Chisso Corporation started developing plastics, drugs, and perfumes
through the use of a chemical called acetaldehyde in 1932. 
Acetaldehyde is produced using mercury as a compound, and was key
component in the production of their products.  The company was
considered an economic success in Japan, particularly because it
was one industry that maintained development despite Japan's
suffering throughout and right after W.W.II.  As other companies
economically ripened during Japan's post-war period, so did the
Chisso Corporation.  Sales augmented with Japan's economic success. 
In addition, Chisso Corporation's sales increased dramatically,
considering Chisso was the only manufacturer of a primary chemical
called D.O.P, a plasticizer (diotyl phthalate).  Having a monopoly
on the chemical enabled Chisso to expand rapidly.  Since Chisso
Corporation was the main industry in the small Minamata town, the
town's growth period from 1952 to 1960 paralleled Chisso's

Not until the mid-1950's did people begin to notice a "strange
disease".  Victims were diagnosed as having a degeneration of their
nervous systems.  Numbness occurred in their limbs and lips.  Their
speech became slurred, and their vision constricted.  Some people
had serious brain damage, while others lapsed into unconsciousness
or suffered from involuntary movements.  Furthermore, some victims
were thought to be crazy when they began to uncontrollably shout. 
People thought the cats were going insane when they witnessed
"suicides" by the cats.  Finally, birds were strangely dropping
from the sky.  Series of these unexplainable occurrences were
bringing panic to Minamata.  

Dr. Hajime Hosokawa from the Chisso Corporation Hospital, reported
on May 1, 1956 that, "an unclarified disease of the central nervous
system has broken out".  Dr. Hosokawa linked the fish diets to the
disease, and soon investigators were promulgating that the sea was
being polluted by poisons from the Chisso Corporation.  The Chisso
Corporation denied the accusations and maintained their production. 
However, by 1958, Chisso Corporation transferred their dumping from
the Minamata Bay to the Minamata River hoping to diminish
accusations toward the company.

The Minamata River flows past the town Hachimon, and into the
Shiranui Sea.  The people of this area also began developing the
"strange disease" after a few months.  The Kumamoto Prefecture
government responded by imposing a ban which allowed fisherman to
"catch" fish, but not to "sell" fish from the bay.  Since this was
their main food source, the people continued to eat fish at home,
but the ban released government officials from any responsibility
for those who developed the illness.

Finally, in July 1959, researchers from Kumamoto University
concluded that organic mercury was the cause of the "Minamata
Disease".  A number of committees, of which Chisso Corporation
employees were members, formed to research the problem.  The
committees denied this information and refuted the direct link of
mercury to the strange disease.  Finally, Dr. Hosokawa performed
concealed cat experiments in front of the Chisso Corporation
management, and illustrated the affects of mercury poisoning by
feeding the cats acetaldehyde.  Dr. Hosokawa was the first person
who made a valiant effort in proving to Chisso Corporation that
they were the ones accountable for the mercury poisoning.  After
the meeting with Chisso officials, Dr. Hosokawa was restricted from
conducting any further research or experiments, and his findings
were concealed by the corporation.

Chisso Corporation began to make deals with the victims of the
"Minamata Disease".  People who were desperate and legally ignorant
signed contracts which stated that Chisso Corporation would pay
them for their misfortunes, but would accept no responsibility.  In
fact, there was even a clause which read, "if Chisso Corporation
were later proven guilty, the company would not be liable for
further compensation".  

The fishermen began protesting in 1959.  They demanded
compensation, but soon became intimidated by the threats of Chisso
management.  The victims feared that if they did not settle, they
would never receive any kind of compensation.  Chisso paid off some
of the people while continuing to profit from increased sales. 
Chisso installed a "Cyclator" which was designed to treat waste
water.  The management however, often ignored this crucial step in
their production process.  Not until 1968, did Chisso Corporation
quit poisoning the waters in Minamata.  The company was forced into
court in 1969, and the only reason why the polluting stopped was
simply because the method of mercury production became outdated. 
It was later determined in court that Chisso Corporation
consistently polluted the waster of Minamata Bay from 1932-1968.  

By 1974 only 798 victims had been officially recognized as having
"Minamata Disease".  Approximately 3,000 more people were waiting
verification from the board of physicians in Kumamoto Prefecture. 
Thousands of people continue to eat fish from the Shiranui Sea, but
there are no reportings of significant health hazards or mercury
poisoning like those people who suffered in Minamata.  In 1993,
almost forty years later, victims were still being compensated for

3.  Related Cases

     BHOPAL case
     DOOSAN case
     KAIDA case

     Keyword Clusters    
     (1): Forum                    = JAPAN
     (2): Bio-geography            = TEMPerate
     (3): Environmental Problem    = MANUFacture

4.  Author  Angie Littlefield    


5.  Discourse and Stage:  DISagree and COMPlete

Victims are still in the process of suing Chisso Corporation for
damages.  The Japanese government is attempting to help Chisso
Corporation from going bankrupt, but Chisso Corporation is already
in substantial debt from paying past victims.  

6.  Forum and /Scope: JAPAN and UNILATeral

     The Kumamoto District Court, Japanese government, and Central
Pollution Board are all involved in the case.  The courts in
Kumamoto District determined rulings for the hearings.  Victims
testified their cases at the UN Environmental Conference in Sweden,
but the UN did not intervene.

7.  Decision Breadth: 1

8.  Legal Standing:  Law

On March 20, 1973, Japan's Kumamoto District Court ruled:

     "It must be said that a chemical plant, in discharging
     the waste water out of the plant, incurs an obligation to
     be highly diligent; to confirm safety through researches
     and studies regarding the presence of dangerous
     substances mixed in the waste water as well as their
     possible effects upon the animal, the plan, and the human
     body, always availing itself of the highest skill and
     knowledge; to provide necessary and maximum preventive
     measures such as immediate suspension of operation if a
     case should arise where there be some doubts as to
     safety... in the final analysis...no plant can be
     permitted to infringe on and run at the sacrifice of the
     lives and health of the regional residents.

     The defendant's plan discharged acetaldehyde waste water
     with negligence at all times, and even though the quality
     and content of the waste water of the defendant's plan
     satisfied statutory limitations and administrative
     standards, and even if the treatment methods it employed
     were superior to those taken at the work yards of other
     companies in the same industry, these are not enough to
     upset the said assumption...the defendant cannot escape
     from the liability of negligence".  


9.  Geography

      a.  Geographic Domain:       Asia
      b.  Geographic Site:         East Asia
      c.  Geographic Impact:       Japan

10.  Sub-national Factors:  No

The waters and marine life were affected by the waste dumping of
Chisso Corporation.  Minamata Bay is a rich fishing and farming
village.  Therefore, when the water was polluted, it had a dramatic
effect on the main resource of Minamata.  The issue was decided by
Kumamoto District Court.

11.  Type of Habitat:  Ocean

Minamata is known for its marine life, and is a fishing village.


12.  Type of Measure:  REGSTD

13.  Direct vs. Indirect Impacts:   IND

14.  Relation of Measure to Impact

      A.  Directly Related to Product:  Yes - mercury
      B.  Indirectly Related to Product:  No
      C.  Not Related to Product:  No
      D.  Related to Process:  Yes - fishing

15.  Trade Product Identification: PLASTic

16.  Economic Data

17.  Degree of Competitive Impact:  High

The many years of dumping was extremely costly to the Minamata town
and Chisso Corporation.  Chisso lost money in boycotts of their
products, in compensation to the victims, and in the overall stress
to the company as a result of the mercury scandal.  There is no
known figure on exactly how much money Chisso paid to the victims. 
The payment was in the millions, and people are still fighting for
money today.  In addition, the people who were fishermen in
Minamata suffered greatly since they had no source of income when
the waters were poisoned.  Minamata was known as a fishing town,
and the ocean was their main environmental resource.  When the
water became polluted, they could no longer depend on this as a
viable resource, and had no other way to make a living.    

18.  Industry Sector:  (N)  [PLAST]

19.  Exporter and Importer: Japan and MANY


20.  Environmental Problem Type:  Pollution Sea [POLS]
The mercury affected both the marine life and the people of
Minamata.  Because the water was contaminated, eating the fish
caused mercury poisoning in people, cats, and birds.

21.  Species Information

     Name:          MANY
     Type:          MANY
     Diversity:     ?

22.  Impact and Effect: HIGH and PRODuct

23.  Urgency and Lifetime: HIGH and 10-20 years

Chisso Corporation no longer uses the chemicals which caused
"Minamata's Disease", or dump any kind of waste into the bay. 
However, the victims have not received full retribution.  Some
people of Minamata are still trying to sue for monetary
compensation from Chisso Corporation.

24.  Substitutes:  Bio-Degradable [BIODG]

Chisso Corporation has implemented environmentally safe technology
in their production process.  The factory quit using the mercury
method of production in 1968, because the system became outdated. 

25.  Culture:  Yes

      Although cultural factors did not play a direct role in the
dispute between Chisso Corporation and the "Minamata Disease"
victims, it did have an indirect impact.  Traditionally, Japanese
people are known to be culturally humble and loyal.  Humility and
loyalties are virtues which are part of Japanese religious
background.  In the Confucian ethic, humility is a honorable
attribute, and people are expected to be loyal and show respect to
their elders.  This relates to the Minamata victims, because it was
the Japanese humility which kept them from initially pressing
charges against Chisso Corporation.  The Japanese people most
likely did not want to believe that a company would intentionally
dump waste into their fishing waters, and then out rightly deny the
accusations.  Another example is Dr. Hosokawa's loyalty.  Dr.
Hosokawa was the first person to prove that Chisso Corporation was
responsible for dumping the mercury, but his loyalty to his company
kept him quiet.  It was noted by researchers that he was internally
tormented by knowing this information, but felt he could not say
anything.  Finally, on his deathbed, Dr. Hosokawa testified to the
court that Chisso Corporation knew their waste dumping had caused
the mercury poisoning.  His statements were crucial to the courts
final verdict in 1973. 

      In sum, cultural explanations can help illustrate why the
Minamata cases have prolonged over the years.  The legal system in
Japan is much different than the United States, and this case is
unusual compared to the norm.  Furthermore, Japanese citizens feel
a loyalty to their government and to their companies.  These people
were outwardly victimized by an authority figure which is quite
uncommon in Japanese culture.        

26.  Human Rights:  Yes

The people in Minamata and Niigata have suffered from gross
deformities, brain damage, and death.  The health problems are
endless, and people are still suffering.  This case is definitely
a human right violation.  Chisso Corporation may have not realized
the effects of mercury poisoning, but they negligently dumped waste
into the water.  The company also denied their negligence and tried
to misrepresent their accountability.  Therefore, not only were the
people violated physically, but the victims were disregarded

27.  Transboundary Issues:  Yes

The company supplied a chemical called diotyl phthalate, D.O.P.,
which many other factories need for their goods.  Therefore, since
this chemical was unavailable for the short period of time while
Chisso Corporation was shut-down, it affected the import/export
business of other companies and affected global trade.

28.  Relevant Literature

"Japan to Provide $100 Million for Firm that Polluted Bay", Chicago
Tribune, September 3, 1993.

"Japan:  New Approaches to the Environment".  Greenwatch.  UNESCO
Courier, July, 1994.

"Japan: Court Orders Firm to Pay $3 Million to Minamata's Victims".
Worldview, July 12, 1994.

"Mercurial Risks from Acid's Reign" by Janet Raloff.  New
Scientist.  Vol. 139, March 9, 1991

"Minamata and the Search for Justice" by Michael Cross.  New
Scientist.  February 16, 1991.

"Minamata's Heroes: Industry Poisoned Their Lives, but not Their
Spirits" by Chieko Kuriki, Chicago Tribune.  April 26, 1990.

"Pills, Pollution, and Power; Japan's Soiled Past" by Ralph S.
Yourtee.  World Paper, February, 1994.

Smith, Eugene.  Minamata.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,

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