A shy, frail housewife and aspiring
poet, MICHIKO ISHIMURE became a determined documentarist when "businessmen
with no conscience" allowed toxic waste to pollute her community. Arousing
the public will, she demonstrated how exacting search for fact can overcome
bureaucratic inertia and hostile industrial interests.
Minamata was a naturally beautiful but poor fishing and farming center when
one of Japan's pioneer chemical companies established itself there in 1908.
Growing into a great chemical complex before, and especially after, World
War II, the company became the principal employer and dominant influence in
local politics and government.
Official non-interest attended a puzzling "cat's dance disease" that spread
through Minamata nearly a quarter century ago, causing frenzied cats to die
or drown themselves. Nor did officials show concern when people, especially
fisher folk, were afflicted with a crippling and disfiguring disease that
also was often convulsive and fatal. An exception was the late Dr. Hajime
Hosokawa of the chemical company's hospital, who, in 1957, enlisted research
assistance from Kumamoto University Medical School. Their finding that the
"mysterious disease" was a central nervous system disorder resulting from
eating fish contaminated by mercury waste discharged into Minamata Bay was
suppressed, though the City Hospital had to build special wards to
accommodate the patients.
Impelled by her Buddhist upbringing to act against callous harm to life,
Mrs. ISHIMURE quietly sought out the stricken. Her penetrating portrayals of
their lives and agonizing illnesses within the context of a stratified
society were first published in a small literary magazine in Kumamoto,
Kyushu. When assembled into a book, Kukai Jodo—Waga Minamata (Pure
Land—Poisoned Sea) in 1968, these poetic essays commanded national response.
The resistance of local and national authorities and the chemical industry
was stubborn. Ostracized by unaffected residents whose living depended upon
the polluting company, and over protestations even of relatives, Mrs.
ISHIMURE persisted. A collection of essays by her and others, Waga Shimin—Minamata-byo
Toso (Minamata Disease—My Dead People), was published in 1972. A second
book, a compilation of her own perceptive writings previously carried in
leading magazines and newspapers, Rumin no Miyako (City of Drifters), was in
its third printing within a month after publication in March 1973.
As scientists, publicists and committees of concerned citizens have gained
hearing in Tokyo, the Health and Welfare Ministry belatedly has acted.
Though the chemical industry has begun corrective measures, the battle still
is not won. As Mrs. ISHIMURE chronicles it, the Minamata tragedy is only a
part of the ongoing struggle between the simple innocence of fishermen and
farmers and the tyranny of mass industrialization that threatens to
In electing MICHIKO ISHIMURE to receive the 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of
Trustees recognizes her as the "voice of her people" in their struggle
against the industrial pollution that has been distorting and destroying