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On July 26, Soka Gakkai members in Minamata City, Kyushu, invited Masazumi Yoshii, a former mayor of the city, to lecture on the impact of Minamata disease, mercury poisoning caused by industrial pollution that first broke out in the 1950s, and efforts to rebuild and revitalize the city and its residents in the decades that followed.
Mr. Yoshii, Minamata City mayor from 1994 to 2002 and a member of the city council since 1975, was instrumental in improving interpersonal relationships within the community that were damaged due to Minamata disease and the resulting stigmatization. Further, in attempt to transform the residents’ relationship to their polluted environment, he began implementing innovative sustainable practices, leading the way for Minamata to become Japan’s first model “eco-city” in 2008.
Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning, was the result of the release of methyl mercury in industrial wastewater from Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory into Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture from 1932 to 1968. When it first arose, the causes of the disease were unknown and it was thought to be contagious. Patients and their families faced intense discrimination and prejudice, including unfair dismissal from employment and discrimination against children of patients in employment and marriage. The city’s name itself became synonymous with the disease, affecting residents for generations.
In his talk, Mr. Yoshii described how the disease had not only destroyed the local infrastructure, but it had also drastically affected interpersonal ties, such as those between patients, the government and Chisso Corporation, patients and other residents, and among the patients themselves. There was also a total of 16 different groups representing those affected, and considerable discord among them.
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To encourage community revitalization and reconstruction that transcended the existing framework of “polluter” and “victim,” he organized activities such as town hall meetings, study sessions and workshops, as well as a joint project with residents to establish a municipal welfare facility called the Minamata Moyainaoshi Center. These initiatives increased opportunities for patients, citizens and the government to meet face-to-face and exchange opinions, and educate themselves on the truth about the disease and its impact.
Mr. Yoshii highlighted that the only way to peace is dialogue. “To me, the spirit of moyainaoshi was the spirit to change society through dialogue that transcended societal positioning or circumstances,” he said.
The lecture was held at the Soka Gakkai Kumamoto Minamata Culture Center and is the first in a series of talks called the “Minamata Hope Lecture Series.”
[Adapted from a report from SGI Office of Public Information (SGI-OPI) and an article in the June 29, 2014, issue of Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photo courtesy of Seikyo Shimbun]
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