First housecats in Minamata, on the west coast of Kyushu in Japan, went berserk, jumping into the sea. Then it began to affect local fishermen, whose lips and limbs would tingle and then become numb. Their speeches slurred; many died. Women gave birth to deformed foetuses, blind children, and others with gnarled fingers and other deformities. It was termed Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Caused by methyl mercury in industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s acetaldehyde factory from 1932 to 1968, the disease would claim thousands of lives.
When the first cases of the disease appeared in 1956, the victims were not only deformed and sick, but they and their families were socially ostracized, rejected for marriage and even barred from shopping in local stores. The Chisso Corporation denied its involvement, eventhough as early as 1959, one of their own doctors managed to reproduce the symptoms in a cat by feeding it waste from the plant. The company hushed up the results. Some local people (who relied on the polluting company for their livelihoods) were also fiercely pro-cover up.
Chisso’s formidable president Yutaka Egashira (formerly managing director of Industrial Bank of Japan, the engine used by the government to finance the country’s post-war reconstruction and future maternal grandfather of Masako, later Empress of Japan) would rely on yakuza to threaten the villagers to stay silent. When patients tried to buy a single share of Chisso to gain entry to its annual general meeting, yakuza blocked them from attending. Influenced by Egashira, the Japanese Government, more concerned with economic development than with public health, ignored and covered up research that pointed the blame at Chisso. It took until 1968 for the government to formally acknowledge mercury as the cause of the poisoning. The following year, the first lawsuit was filed by Minamata victims and in 1973, the court ruled in their favor against Chisso. Victims received payments of about $60,000 each and Kenichi Shimada, Chisso’s president, knelt to apologize.
In between, a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE brought world attention to the disease. Smith and his interpreter, a Japanese American student from Stanford University named Aileen Mioko Sprague (whom Smith would soon marry) were touring Japan for an exhibition of his works. They planned to stay in Minamata for three weeks, but ended up staying for three years. For eighteen dollars a month, they rented a house belonging to one of the victims, sharing a dirt-floored kitchen and bath, where they developed photos.
The most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber (the first photo was widely reproduced, the second photo less widely seen). Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. In Smith’s own words: “It grew and grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Minamata was, finally, a picture of this woman and the child, Tomoko. One day I simply said … let us try to make that symbolic picture”.
The pieta of our industrial age, critics called it, and the photoessay was ‘a case study in Japanese politics’ the New York Times wrote. Although the photo was posed for Smith, the family subsequently asked the photo to be withdrawn from circulation. The picture does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith’s works.
A month after the photo was taken, on January 7th 1972, Smith joined other Minamata victims at a demonstration at Chisso’s plant near Tokyo, where he was attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees which left him with a permanently damaged eye and a crippled health. This attack made Smith a familiar face on local news. A Tokyo department store staged an exhibit of Smith’s photos, which was visited by 50,000 people in twelve days.
The couple’s photoessay “Death-Flow from a Pipe” was published in the June 2, 1972, issue of LIFE and more photos were included in their 1975 book Minamata. Smith was awarded the 1974 Robert Capa Gold Medal for his work. Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.