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EDITORIAL | Prioritize Minamata Disease Victims and Get Those Rude Officials Out of Their Way

After that sham public consultation, we cannot expect environment ministry officials to sincerely work for the interests of Minamata disease victims.

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Environment Minister Shintaro Ito apologizes to Shigemitsu Matsuzaki (second from the left), vice chairman of the patient support center for Minamata disease (@Kyodo).

Listening to the opinions of affected parties and engaging with them face-to-face is a critical part of the job of government officials. It is even more important while formulating and implementing policies. Unfortunately, in the case of Minamata disease, the environment ministry recently demonstrated its lack of understanding of this core consideration for the citizens it is meant to serve. 

This makes it difficult to imagine ministry officials implementing sensible policies. It is only natural therefore for patients and other victims of Minamata disease to feel distrustful. 

[Minamata disease is a neurological disease caused by poisoning from methyl mercury. Environmental waste containing it was released near Minamata town in Kyushu, Japan, by Nippon Chisso Hiryo Co from 1932 to 1968.] 

Minister of the Environment Shintaro Ito listens to statements from a patient group after attending a memorial service for Minamata disease victims on May 1. (@Kyodo)

Excuses Making Matters Worse

Recently Minister of the Environment Shintaro Ito met with a group of Minamata disease patients and victims in Kyushu. His purpose was supposedly to directly understand their opinions and feelings. However, during the meeting ministry officials prevented participants from speaking longer than three minutes each. Officials even cut off the sound of their microphones when they went over the time limit.

That was a rough and violent way to treat those they were there to listen to. It was a "consultative meeting" in name only. And we have to suspect that from the start ministry officials had no intention of giving the attendees a fair hearing. 

Nonetheless, an environment ministry spokesperson explained, "That's how things have been done in the past." If that is true, the ministry should issue retroactive apologies for all the times it has treated people so poorly. 

Memorial ceremony for Minamata disease victims held in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture on May 1. (@Kyodo)

A Bad Day in Minamata City

The meeting in question took place in Minamata City in Kumamoto Prefecture on May 1. It followed a memorial service for victims of the Minamata disease. Minamata disease victims from eight groups attended, along with Ito and other environment ministry officials. 

The ministry only allowed each of the eight groups only three minutes, once, to make a statement. On two occasions the microphone sound was cut off when the allotted three minutes expired, even though the group representative was still speaking. Officials also took back the microphone from the speaker.

A more outlandish way of dealing with the situation is hard to imagine. Of course, speakers cannot be allowed to go on as long as they like. However, three minutes is too short to say much of anything. 

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Environment Minister Shintaro Ito (left) bows his head as he visits to apologize to Minamata disease patients and victims, May 8 afternoon, Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture (@Kyodo)

Official Government Response

On May 7, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters: "Meetings like that provide an important opportunity to carefully listen to the opinions of involved parties. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that things were managed appropriately in this instance, as attendees were left displeased." 

Also, at a May 8 Lower House Cabinet Committee meeting, Hayashi read a public apology on behalf of the government. 

Minister Ito also harshly reprimanded the vice minister of the environment ministry and the director of the Environmental Health Department. "Minamata disease is the reason why we now have a Ministry of the Environment," he told them. He visited Minamata City on the same day and personally apologized to the two speakers who had been cut off. 

Ministry officials have also given the impression that they were trying to cover the agency’s tracks in this affair. 

Ito initially said, "I wasn't aware that the mic had been cut off." However, he was there, in the venue at the time, so he must have realized the sound had been cut off. He cannot just show up for such meetings. Letting career bureaucrats handle all the particulars is hardly fulfilling his responsibility as a Cabinet minister. 

Teppei Kiuchi, head of the Ministry of the Environment's Special Environmental Diseases office, apologizes to representatives of Minamata disease patients and victims' organizations for restraining them from speaking during a meeting with Environment Minister Ito. May 8, in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture. (@Kyodo)

68 Years Later, Still Not Listening

It has already been 68 years since Minamata disease was officially recognized. Yet, there are still multiple lawsuits pending seeking compensation from the government that have yet to be resolved. 

The environment agency should hold another meeting to make up for the fiasco. And at all times officials should bear in mind the importance of real dialogue when implementing policies. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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