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The rage of the patients had to be felt, not only by patients but by the whole nation. They needed the notoriety that their supporters brought them, as well as sympathy, to keep a spotlight on Chisso and keep their uprising alive. The snapping of flags in the wind, the chants of marching supporters, the sometimes outrageous demonstrations, these finally, truly, crept into the conscience of a nation. This was a cry from the wounded that was not to be smothered.

“Vengeance,” the closest translation of the Japanese character [怨] on these flags, does not mean revenge. It means something more intense, almost mystical: that we shall pursue you to justice, and even then we shall not forget.
-W. Eugene Smith & Aileen Smith, Minamata (1975): 85

Recently, The Japan Times published an article on Sakamoto Shinobu, a 53-year-old survivor of Minamata disease, and her desire to meet with US President Obama when he visits Japan this month.

“Minamata disease” is caused by mercury poisoning. The company that had become known as Chisso by the 1970s had been dumping wastewater that included organic mercury into Minamata Bay since 1932. The patients of the disease who had survived had tried to negotiate with the company. The disease was considered shameful, which prevented cohesive action in the first wave of protests. It was not until the 1970s that the second wave of protests started to make an impact and that the sufferers of the effects of the poisoning came out about their condition and demanded aid from Chisso.

President Obama and Sakamoto-san have a link through books. Sakamoto-san read Obama’s biography and was moved by his words of hope and his discussion of Minamata; Obama read W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith’s Minamata, a photo-essay that appeared in Life Magazine in 1972 and was published as a book in 1975. Smith and Smith traveled there to research the disease and became involved in the protests. Sakamoto-san was one of their photographic subjects.

In his autobiography, Obama wrote about how he was moved by Smith’s most famous Minamata photo: Uemura Tomoko’s being bathed by her mother (“Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.”) The photo is still available in print editions of the book and online, but the Uemura family requested it be removed. (You can find it if you search for it, though.) Obama describes the photo as “a Japanese woman cradling a young, naked girl in a shallow tub: that was sad; the girl was sick, her legs twisted, her head fallen back against the mother’s breast, the mother’s face tight with grief.”

Uemura Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21 as a result of the mercury poisoning.

Words do not do this photo justice. It is one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever seen in my life, and a reminder to us of the environmental and human destruction caused by irresponsible industries.

If you think the language I’m using is too biased, look at Aileen Smith’s archived photos, and tell me what you see isn’t 許せない.

I read Smith and Smith’s photo-essay for grad school, and I wrote about their narrative techniques in comparison to other books about Minamata. The emotional impact of that project was indescribable. I got to a point where I could not even crack the book without crying. What has stuck with me the most, though, even more than the photos of unspeakable suffering and of the patients’ courageous protests, was one section of text, with which I’d like to conclude. This was written in regards to a photo of the protesters holding down a Chisso executive and demanding he acknowledge them.

From Life Magazine

 

When victims sue, when victims protest, when a desperate move causes public disruption of the daily status quo, it becomes terribly easy to reverse the roles of the protagonists. Too often, it is somehow quite easy to believe that those who seek justice after being injured are the attackers, and that those who have caused the injury are the victims. (Smith & Smith 1975: 98)

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