Minamata Disease and Environment Ministry: Is Dialogue with Sufferers A Mere Formality?

The purpose of establishing the Environment Ministry was to prevent environmental pollution and provide relief for the sufferers. The ministry needs to go back to the basics and regain the attitude of sincerely listening to the voices of these people.

During a meeting between Minamata disease sufferers’ groups and Environment Minister Shintaro Ito in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, a ministry official switched off the microphones and interrupted remarks by two sufferers.

The ministry said it repeatedly urged them to finish their remarks within their allotted time of three minutes per group, but they exceeded their given time. Ito was scheduled to hear from representatives of eight groups.

One of the two persons whose remarks were cut off was speaking about the feelings of his wife, who died without being recognized as a Minamata disease sufferer despite complaining about her health issues. The groups were angry at the ministry’s response, and the meeting fell into disorder.

The meeting is organized by the ministry every year so the minister can hear directly from the sufferers of the disease and make sure their voices are used for its administrative measures. Although there have been time limits set by the ministry in the past, the microphones reportedly have never been turned off, even if the speakers’ remarks were somewhat lengthy.

The ministry’s position is that it asks sufferers to speak about their experiences and needs to listen to them. It is said that the time for the minster’s flight back to Tokyo was nearing. However, it was extremely impolite and selfish of the ministry to turn down the volume of the microphones for its own convenience.

In the first place, it is hard to believe that it would be possible to hear anything useful for the administrative measures within just three minutes. As the meetings have been held for many years, they might have become nothing more than a formality.

It appears that the ministry officials in charge were only concerned about the minister’s schedule and failed to consider the feelings of the sufferers. Furthermore, Ito, even though he witnessed the chaos at the venue, stated, “I am not aware that the microphones were switched off.”

This is an inhumane response. Even if it is inevitable to set a certain time limit for remarks, the way the ministry handled the situation was very poor. It is no wonder that the ministry was criticized as the epitome of cold bureaucracy. In the future, the ministry should review the minister’s demanding schedule of a one-day trip as well as the allotted time for speakers.

The Environment Agency, the predecessor of the ministry, was established in 1971 in response to the serious societal problems caused by pollution-related diseases such as Minamata disease and itai-itai disease during the period of rapid economic growth. The ministry has the responsibility to prevent the destruction of nature and protect the health of the people.

This year marks 68 years since the official confirmation of Minamata disease. During this period, the government has come out with solutions, including the creation of a special measures law for the relief of sufferers. However, those who were not eligible for relief measures have filed class-action lawsuits in various parts of the country.

Ito apologized to the groups. He said he will hold another round of meetings with them. The sufferers and others are aging rapidly. It is essential for the ministry to think seriously about the role of the organization and have a series of heart-to-heart dialogues with sufferers.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 10, 2024)