[Viewpoint] The two grim shadows of Japan

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[Viewpoint] The two grim shadows of Japan

Several years ago I had a chance to visit the western coastal city of Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan on business. The scenic fishing village’s name is better known for the notorious Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning.

Chemical producer Chisso Corp. established a factory in the area a century ago and dumped industrial wastewater containing highly toxic methylmercury into the sea from 1932 to 1968. Animal and human deaths after victims suffered symptoms like muscle numbness and paralysis continued for decades after people consumed contaminated seafood. Fifty-five years have passed since the disease was first discovered in the area.

Today’s Minamata is an ordinary and peaceful fishing village. The mercury contamination has been removed and the fishing business has returned. The disease is not epidemic and regular examination shows that seawater there is one of the cleanest in Japan. Yet the coastal region cannot shake the stigma as a deadly disease epicenter.

I was startled as soon as I entered a five-story hotel facing the beach. The hotel I booked had been described in an advertisement touting the longest cave hot spring in Japan. It had the ambience of the grand yet spooky bathhouse depicted in the Japanese fantasy animation “Spirited Away.” My name was the only one listed in the hotel entrance as one of the day’s new arrivals.

The lobby was empty. As I was escorted to my room, a speaker played Korean tunes popular in the 1990s. “That sounds like South Korean pop music ... Am I the only guest in the hotel?” I asked my escort. A staff member in her 20s nodded with a friendly smile. “We play Korean music for Korean guests in a show of greeting,” she said, adding that the hotel will do its best to serve today’s only guest. She also said I was free to use both male and female bathhouses because there are no other guests.

Suddenly, I felt a chill run down my spine. As the only guest in a hotel of more than 70 rooms, I felt like I was being constantly watched, even when I would go to throw away my trash. The 10-meter-long cave spring felt too long and dark.

As I checked out the next day, the staff at the front cashier explained that the area still has few visitors because of the shadow of the Minamata disease.

Prior to booking, many quests ask several times if the fish and food there are absolutely safe to eat. The coastal city these days is courting group student tours for environmental experiences and golf tourists from South Korea and China.

Fukushima - the epicenter of a meltdown after the monstrous earthquake and tsunami hit the nuclear complex on the eastern coast of Japan in March - is also turning into an abandoned city. Citizens left the city after radiation leakage from the first reactor in Fukushima. Volunteer workers swarmed with helping hands to nearby areas, but shunned Fukushima, where even the mail and delivery people fear to enter.

On news of worsening radiation contamination of soil and water, the farming industry that once produced the fourth largest rice crop is on the brink of collapse.

Various civilian and public organizations are campaigning for the consumption of agricultural, livestock and fisheries goods from the area to save the local economy.

The government plans to make highway charges free in the tsunami- and earthquake-hit northeastern coastal areas to help the tourism industry there. Over 100,000 Fukushima residents are living as refugees and they do not know whether it will take 10 or 20 years for them to return to their homes. Fukushima and Minamata have become the heavy price that Japan has paid for its economic and industrial success.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park So-young
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