Despite living in Japan as a baby (my parents lived there for a total of four years) the first I heard of Minamata was via a Dead Kennedys song called “Kepone Factory” when I was 13. Back then punk bands were my window into politics and current events.

The lyrics to the chorus go like this:

It’s the Kepone poisoning-Minamata
Kepone poisoning-Minamata
At the grimy Kepone Factory
Turning people into bonsai trees  

Watch the DKs perform it live in the studio here.

Since there was no Google back then, I asked my dad what it was all about. He told me that that the kepone controversy (environmental and worker kepone poisoning in the US state of Virginia) was separate from what happened at Minamata. So-called Minamata Disease is severe mercury poisoning linked to a chemical factory which operated for many years in the Japanese city of Minamata. Methylmercury from the plant was released into the environment, accumulating in local seafood which was then consumed by the local population, resulting in human and animal deaths, birth defects and symptoms including difficulties with hearing and speech, muscle weakness, paralysis, and insanity. A total of 2,265 were officially affected by Minamata disease over a 30-year span, including 1,784 deaths. Other estimates put the numbers higher.

Political posters in Minamata, pic: mhashi (Flickr CC)

The Dead Kennedys were using artistic license to compare the two chemical factories’ poisoning of their respective local populations. Same goes for the line “turning people into bonsai trees”.

Some 81 years after the Chisso Corporation started releasing methylmercury into Minamata Bay, the process of phasing out mercury-containing products such as thermometers and light bulbs, is well on its way. This autumn is set to mark the signing of the Minamata Convention by 147 countries

From China Dialogue:

It also restricts mercury emissions from coal plants, industrial coal furnaces, smelting and concrete manufacturing. Existing mercury mines are to be closed within 15 years, and no new mines opened.

China, as the largest producer, user and emitter of mercury, faces considerable challenges in terms of recycling products that contain mercury and especially mercury emissions from coal plants. The requirements of the Minamata treaty sets 2020 as a deadline for its standards to come into full effect.

Read more about the Minamata Convention on News Click and in the Daily Yomiuri.

Small coal plant, China, pic: Daniel N. Lang (Flickr CC)

From a poem by a Japanese fisherman suffering from Minamata disease:

When I though I was dying
and my hands were numb
and wouldn’t work–
and my father was dying too–when
the villagers turned against us–
it was to the sea
I would go to cry.

(source: The Poisoning of Minamata by Douglas Allchin)