The Mercury Threat -- Again

One of the remarkable things about human achievement is how it resonates, continuing to be influential long after its first impact, even after its creator's life is ended.  A case in point can be found in the work of W. Eugene Smith.

Smith was one of the giants of 20th-century photography, a pioneer in the development of the photo essay.  He is far from forgotten, though not as well-known as he once was.  Born and raised in Wichita, Smith became interested in photography in his early teens.  It became an all-consuming passion, overwhelming everything else in his life.  When he entered Notre Dame in 1936, his photos attracted such attention that he was offered a unique four-year scholarship.  All the same, he left only a year later, annoyed by well-meaning attempts to supervise his work.

Smith took a job with Newsweek only to lose it in over a disagreement concerning unauthorized cameras.  The incident set the tone for a rather dysfunctional career pattern in which Smith would gain lucrative and respected positions through sheer talent that he would then throw away.

For the next few years, Smith worked as a freelancer for the leading picture magazines of the day, including Colliers and Life.  With the outbreak of war, Smith worked as a combat photographer in the Pacific theater, taking incredible risks to get telling shots.  He gained a reputation for some of the most stunning and disturbing photographs of the war.

His luck held until the battle of Okinawa,* when he was struck in the face by Japanese shrapnel while lining up a shot.  Two years of rehabilitation and surgery followed.  Doctors warned him that he was unlikely to work as a photographer ever again.

Smith proved them wrong, returning to photography immediately following his release.  After a short time as a freelancer, he became a contract photographer for Life, one of the most widely-read magazines in the country.  He specialized in photo essays, many on medical figures, including one titled "Country Doctor" and another on physician and philanthropist Albert Schweitzer.  By this means, he became one of the most widely known photographers in the country.

In 1955, Smith quit Life after an argument over the treatment of the Schweitzer piece (the magazine had modified several images without Smith's knowledge).  He then joined the photo service Magnum.  His first assignment was to provide photographs for a book on Pittsburgh, then going through the pangs of deindustrialization.

It was here that Smith's professional traits -- both good and bad -- combined to utterly transform his career.  Only a few hundred photos were needed.  But Smith became obsessed, seeing the project as a potential masterpiece, a means of raising the photo essay to the level of high art.  He quit Magnum and spent the next three years in Pittsburgh, ending up with over 10,000 negatives.  The final results remain unpublished to this day (and possibly unpublishable).

Although Smith received several Guggenheim grants, they weren't quite enough.  His marriage collapsed, and his children suffered serious deprivation.  Aggravating the situation was the fact that Smith had adapted the boho way of life that arose in the U.S. during the '40s and '50s, of which the Beats were the most extreme example.  He heavily abused alcohol and drugs (mostly amphetamines), both of which increased his isolation and undependability.  As he entered his middle years, Eugene Smith found himself broke, unemployable, and at a loss.

Minamata is a small village on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan.  It was a fishing village, backwards and set in its ways.  The sole industry was a plant operated by the Chisso Corporation.  The plant manufactured plastic through a process utilizing mercury, which was then dumped into the Minimata Bay.  Over a period of thirty years, Chisso disposed of roughly 27 tons of mercury by this means.

In the early 1950s, local wildlife began acting strangely.  Birds dropped out of the sky.  A plague of "dancing cats" struck the village, with cats prancing and leaping uncontrollably, some of them falling into the bay to drown.

Then the villagers began to be affected, exhibiting slurred speech, seizures, and uncontrollable tremors.  Many could no longer hold chopsticks to feed themselves.  (It's difficult to imagine a more telling symptom of progressive neurological deterioration.)  For several years, "Minimata disease" remained a mystery.

In 1956, medical investigators at last identified the disorder as a form of heavy-metal poisoning caused by mercury.  The source was the waste dumped by the Chisso Corporation.  Raw mercury disposed in the bay was chemically transmuted into methyl mercury, which then entered the food chain.  It became concentrated in fish, a staple food of the villagers.  (Interestingly, methyl mercury purportedly is today involved in the MMR vaccination fraud as the chemical supposedly causing autism in children.  In truth, the substance used in vaccination formulas was ethyl mercury, a totally different chemical.)

Chisso Corporation denied everything.  Even though the company physician, Dr. Hajimé Hosokawa, had clearly demonstrated in secret tests on cats that the company was responsible, management defied investigators and researchers.  The company surreptitiously ceased dumping in the bay and instead began dumping in the Minamata River.  Within a short time, people in that area started coming down with the same symptoms.  But not until 1959 was incontrovertible evidence established.

Conditions in Minamata continued to deteriorate.  Villagers who worked in the factory, displaying an almost feudal sense of loyalty, turned against those suffering from mercury poisoning.  Victims became outcasts, shunned and cursed by the rest of the population, treated like figures from a nightmare.  Critics of the company were stalked, harassed, and even beaten.

Village fishermen traveled to Tokyo to protest, establishing a shanty town in front of Chisso's headquarters.  The government, which up until then had offered total support to the company, promised to look into the matter.  In November, members of the Diet -- Japan's parliament -- traveled to Minamata on a fact-finding tour.  Even as they arrived, the situation in Minamata exploded.  A riot broke out on at the company facilities, causing considerable damage.  In the face of serious public disapproval, Chisso capitulated, establishing a fund for victims and promising to install a water purification system.

The purification system opened with great fanfare a month later, and payments to victims began shortly afterward.  But it was all a fraud.  The system, called a "Cyclator," was actually not hooked up to the plant's operating system.  Instead, clean water was piped in and then piped right back out again while mercury dumping continued.  As for the payments, victims were browbeaten into taking the lowest amount with threats that they might get nothing at all.

There the matter might have stood except for the Minamata children.  The female placenta usually filters out poisons before they reach the fetus.  But this did not occur in the case of methyl mercury.  Children in Minamata and the surrounding area were being born suffering the full effects of mercury poisoning.

Chisso managed to keep the lid on until 1965, when yet another episode of poisoning broke out in Niigata Prefecture, where a factory owned by Showa Denko was operating a process similar to that used in Minamata.  The controversy exploded once more.  A number of victims, distrustful of Chisso, decided to file a lawsuit.  This caused yet more dissension in Minamata, with those who had already accepted payouts fearful that payments would cease.  The litigation group pushed on regardless.

As the lawsuit ground its way through the court system, the litigators began attracting allies.  Among them was a once notable American photographer.

Eugene Smith had a rough decade in the 1960.  Still addicted to liquor and drugs, he worked little, instead spending much of his time photographing jazz greats playing all-night music jams in lofts in midtown Manhattan.  (These photos were recently given their first full exhibit.)  Late in the decade, he began to pull his life together.  He remarried, to a Japanese-American woman named Aileen, and at her suggestion fled New York, then rapidly deteriorating into Taxi Driver status, for life in Japan.

Once in Japan, Smith could not help but hear about Minamata.  Sensing a great story, he set out for western Kyushu, taking his cameras with him.

Smith lived in Minamata from 1971 to 1973.  Like Pittsburgh, Minamata became an obsession.  Smith shot endless rolls of film as "Minamata: Life -- Sacred and Profane" began to take form.  Life magazine, Smith's old employer, distributed the results worldwide.  The photos transformed the Minamata story from an odd incident in a country still little-understood to a matter of worldwide significance.

No one had ever seen pictures like this.  Smith's photos contained echoes of the Holocaust, of the effects of plague and starvation.  It was news to most that environmental poisoning could occur on such a scale and with such hideous results.  Two photos were particularly striking: "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath," which portrayed an aging mother bathing her terribly deformed child, and a close-up shot of a child's hand, the fingers shriveled and turned in on themselves, resembling nothing more than the claws of a maimed bird.  This was what mercury poisoning does to young children.

Smith's photos became some of the most widely seen and easily recognizable of their epoch.  They awakened millions to the potential dangers of pollution and played a critical role in the birth of the environmental movement of the 1970s.

In Japan, international attention acted as a switch to the backs of a recalcitrant political establishment.  The judicial proceedings, which had been hanging for several years, climaxed in March 1973 with the repudiation of the Chisso Corporation and the triumph of the victims.  The court ordered Chisso to pay heavy damages for all deaths and illnesses, payments that continue to this day.  Over 10,000 people have been compensated by the corporation.

Smith himself paid a high price.  In January 1972, he was stalked and assaulted by Chisso goons outside of Tokyo, suffering a severe beating.  One eye was so damaged that Smith nearly lost it, and the aftereffects plagued him until his death in 1978.  But he had no regrets.  As he said many times afterward, Minamata was the peak of his career.  It was there that he found his masterpiece.

What do Smith's photographs have to tell us today?  Quite a bit, actually, and more than you might think of photos four decades old.  Because we've come full circle as far as pollution goes.  At the time, the task was to separate people from dangerous pollutants such as mercury.  But today, mercury in threatening amounts is being returned to the home environment in the form of pigtail fluorescent bulbs, supposedly to fulfill the same environmental imperative as at Minamata.  Although the circumstances have changed, the basics remain the same: the arrogance and indifference of politicians, the bullheadedness of special interests.

The two politicians most responsible are the sponsors of the bill mandating domestic use of fluorescents, Fred Upton (R-MI) and Jane Harmon (D-CA).  Little can be expected of California Democrats, but what of Upton?  In gaining his seat as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he promised to revisit his own bill and see that it was repealed.  How likely this is to happen is anybody's guess.  Would Upton be encouraged in this by studying some old photographs of a terrifying disaster now slipping into history?  It's not much to ask.  It would take very little effort to assure that no American child suffers the same horrors that struck a small Japanese village a half-century ago.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and the author of the new book Death by Liberalism. 
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