The Multinational Monitor



Industrial Tragedies Foster Activist Movements

by Kathleen Selvaggio

In the late 1950s, a number of people from Minamata, a small fishing and industrial village in southern Japan, were afflicted with a strange illness that caused them to suffer severe muscular tremors and to shout uncontrollably. In the following years, children of the town were born disfigured and brain-damaged, and hundreds more began to suffer from the illness. By 1970, nearly 50 people had died. Minamata Disease, as it became known, surfaced after the Chisso Chemical Factory discharged large amounts of mercury into Minamata Bay, the main source of fish for the local people.

During the 1950s and 60s more than a hundred people died from itai-itai (ouchouch) disease, an illness that causes the bones to bend, disintegrate, or become very soft. Victims are bedridden with tens, sometimes hundreds, of bone fractures. The disease was eventually attributed to poisoning by cadmium, discharged by the plant of the Mitsui Mining and Smelting Company. The contaminated river water was used for irrigation as well as drinking water.

These two environmental disasters helped fuel activist movements within Japan critical of industry and of the government's emphasis on rapid economic growth. Consumer and environmental activists often speak about the "bitter experiences" of Minamata and itai-itai 'disease, seeing them as the inevitable consequences of an economic growth strategy that ignores people and the environment. "We have suffered much," consumer leader Nomura Katsuko told Multinational Monitor in a July interview.

Environmental activists know this better than most people. Despite years of struggle for a better working and living environment, gains have been small and hard-won. But leaders like Ui Jun, founder of the environmental group Jishu-Koza, say they are determined to hold fast to them. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Ui told an audience that Japanese environmentalists need to carefully guard the improvement in pollution levels achieved during the 1970s, which industry, burdened by recession, is now threatening to undo.

Japan is one of the most heavily polluted countries in the world, Ui said. Its coastline, streams, rivers, and air quality have all suffered from the country's rapid industrialization. "Imagine the state of Montana, with 120 million people on only 20 percent of the land, and the second largest industry in the world," Ui said. "That's what you have in Japan. Such conditions produce conflict between various sectors in society. Indeed, environmental activism in

Japan has long been marked by conflict. The movement has been led by rural residents, often fishermen and farmers who have been the main victims of dreaded diseases like Minamata. In their fight for better environmental conditions, they have frequently encountered repression, beginning with the beatings and arrests by government troops of farmers who rebelled against the flooding of their farmland by a copper mine in the early 1900s. Consequently, activists' struggles have taken an adversarial, even militant character, distrustful of the professional and technical experts who have traditionally been called in to solve environmental problems.

Ui Jun urges the inclusion of victims in designing pollution control policy. "The best methods for dealing with the negative effects of production, such as hazardous working conditions or environmental degradation will come from the laborers and pollution victims most directly involved," he says. To incorporate victims in policy planning, environmentalists are building support among small, independent unions and among several local governments, says Ui.

The Japanese consumer movement has come to share many of the same concerns as the environmental movement, although it stems from different origins. The consumer movement grew out of postwar protests and demonstrations by housewives demanding increased food distribution under the rationing system of that period. Since that time, women, mostly urban housewives, have taken the lead in the consumer movement, broadening their concerns to include hazardous substances, utility rate hikes, and nuclear power.

At this time, the consumer movement in Japan has turned most of its attention to the issue of food additives. Under strong pressure from the U.S., the Japanese government has gradually eased its once tight restrictions on food additives, many of which are proven health hazards. Two recent policy changes illustrate the shift:

  • During the Mediterranean fruit fly scare in 1981, Japan agreed to import U.S. fruit treated with ethyl-dibromide (EDB), a pesticide sprayed on fruit risking infestation. Since 1975 it has been known that EDB causes cancer, malformation of fetuses, and genetic changes in test animals. On September 30, the U.S. issued an emergency ban on EDB use in soil.

  • The Japan Health Ministry cancelled a scheduled ban of the food preservative Butyl Hydroxyl Anisol (BHA) on January 31, 1983, the day before it was due to take effect. BHA may lead to genetic mutation and Japanese university researchers recently reported that it causes cancer in laboratory rats.

Consumer activists say that the steady deregulation of food additives is due to lobbying by the U.S. government, which has been pushing Japan to liberalize its food additive restrictions. Japan imports more than half its food, and the U.S. supplies about 40 percent of those imports, primarily beef, grains, and citrus fruits.

A recent issue of Consumer Currents in Japan reports that the Japanese Minister of Health met with representatives from the U.S. embassy on the day before the BHA ban was due to begin; according to the report, the minister was asked to "respond to the total prohibition of BHA more carefully.- Nomura believes that the influence of the U.S. over Japanese government policy on this issue extends beyond food additives to the importation of food altogether.

"In Japan, we have much fruit," she told the Monitor. "We don't want to import any more fruit. But the U.S. government demands it." Nomura points out that U.S. pressure to buy more food is due in part to the large volume of Japanese cars exported to the U.S. Therefore, "We consumers should put pressure on the Japanese government and industry to stop exporting so much," she says.

Nomura characterizes both the Reagan and Nakasone governments as "anticonsumer administrations." "The interests of Japanese and American consumers correspond," she concludes. Nomura has called for a meeting of U.S. and Japan consumer groups to discuss their common concerns.

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