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Minamata: History vs. Hollywood


Johnny Depp
Born: June 9, 1963
Owensboro, Kentucky, USA

W. Eugene Smith
Born: December 30, 1918
Birthplace: Wichita, Kansas, USA
Death: October 15, 1978, Tucson, Arizona, USA (stroke)

Born: September 22, 1986
Tokyo, Japan

Aileen Mioko Smith
Birthplace: Japan

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Did W. Eugene Smith suffer from health problems that were the result of previous injuries?

Yes. The Minamata true story reveals that while working as a photojournalist in the Pacific Theater during WWII, W. Eugene 'Gene' Smith was seriously injured by mortar fire during the Battle of Okinawa. He also sustained injuries in two plane crashes.

What is Minamata disease?

As emphasized in the Minamata Johnny Depp movie, the disease is a neurological disorder brought on by severe mercury poisoning. Symptoms include abnormal gait, altered speech, and abnormal eye movements, which are collectively known as ataxia (a condition affecting the parts of the nervous system that coordinate movement). Other symptoms of Minamata disease include muscle weakness, fever, uncontrollable flailing, numbness in the lips, feet and hands, loss of hearing, and loss of peripheral vision. In very severe cases, madness, paralysis, coma, and death can occur within weeks of the first symptoms.

When was Minamata disease first discovered?

The disease was first identified in 1956 in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan. It was the result of pollution from industrial wastewater released by a chemical factory owned by the Chisso Corporation. The wastewater was contaminated with inorganic mercury. When it came into contact with the anaerobic bacteria in the sediment in the bay and seabed, it was transformed into methylmercury, the most poisonous form of the metal, which was then absorbed by the plants. When the fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay ate the plants, methylmercury accumulated in their cells. As people and animals (including cats and crows) consumed the fish and shellfish, which was a normal part of their diet, they began to suffer from mercury poisoning.

The Chisso chemical factory is located in the city of Minamata in southern Japan near the Shiranui Sea.

It's important to note, that while discovered in 1956, the Chisso Corporation had been polluting the water with mercury since 1932 and continued to do so until 1968, the year the government finally officially recognized Minamata disease as an illness stemming from industrial pollution. It was then that Chisso stopped production of acetaldehyde using mercury as the catalyst. The Minamata disaster had gone on for 36 years.

Were symptoms of the disease first observed in children?

Symptoms of the disease were first observed by residents of the area in cats and other wildlife starting around 1950. Residents observed cats having convulsions, acting erratic, and then dying (it was later determined this was from the methylmercury in the fish the cats were eating). This would eventually be dubbed "dancing cat fever." They also witnessed crows falling from the sky and dead fish floating on the surface of the sea. Fisheries in the area had seen reduced catches ever since the opening of the Chisso Corporation's Minamata chemical factory in 1908. By 1926, Chisso had reached a compensation agreement with the fishery cooperative. Another agreement was reached in 1943.

The first signs of Minamata disease in humans were indeed observed in children. On April 21, 1956, a five-year-old girl was seen by physicians at Chisso's factory hospital. She had been experiencing convulsions, as well as difficulty walking and speaking. Her younger sister began with the same puzzling symptoms two days later. She too was admitted to the hospital. After the same symptoms were identified in a neighbor's daughter, door-to-door examinations were carried out, which confirmed eight more cases. It was then that the hospital told the public health office that they had an unidentified epidemic on their hands, which affected the central nervous system. The human toll of the Minamata disaster was beginning to reveal itself.

Some of W. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen's actual photos can be seen in the Johnny Depp movie, including this image of the hand of a young Minamata disease victim named Tomoko Uemura. She was also the subject of Smith's highly publicized and impactful 1971 photo Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.

Was the Chisso Corporation aware that their chemical factory was polluting the water?

Yes. From almost the moment they opened the chemical factory in Minamata in 1908, the company was aware its wastewater was depleting the local fisheries. After Minamata disease was discovered in 1956, the company carried out its own tests on its chemical factory's wastewater. The tests found numerous heavy metals that were present in concentrations high enough to inflict severe damage to the environment. They found elevated concentrations of arsenic, mercury, manganese, copper, thallium, and selenium. The challenge for scientists became figuring out which one was causing the Minamata disaster.

The Chisso Corporation's chemical factory in Minamata, Japan polluted the waters with mercury for 36 years.

Was W. Eugene Smith estranged from his children?

Yes. The depiction early in the movie of Johnny Depp's character holed up in his apartment, estranged from his adult children, drinking heavily, and in debt, seems mostly accurate, albeit a little exaggerated when compared to the true story of W. Eugene Smith. Once a famed WWII photographer, by the early 1970s, it's true that he had found himself embracing resentment and self-pity, not to mention the bottle. However, in real life, he wasn't alone. He was living with Aileen at the time.

Did the Chisso Corporation try to avoid responsibility by rerouting the flow of the wastewater?

Yes. While conducting our fact check, we confirmed that Chisso Corporation not only downplayed their responsibility, in September 1958, they attempted to deflect scrutiny by rerouting their chemical factory's wastewater to flow directly into the Minamata River instead of Hyakken Harbour. The result was devastating, as a whole new area was now being affected by the Minamata environmental disaster. Dead fish immediately began to appear at the mouth of the river, and before long, new Minamata victims started to show up in villages along the coast of the Shiranui Sea, the body of water into which the river flows.

Industrial wastewater contaminated with mercury flows from the Chisso chemical factory in Minamata, Japan, eventually reaching the bay.

Did the real W. Eugene Smith meet Aileen when she recruited him to document what was happening in Minamata, Japan?

No. In real life, Aileen Mioko Smith wasn't the one who recruited W. Eugene Smith to go to Minamata. He was actually recruited by a member of the Minamata movement while he and Aileen were in Tokyo for an exhibit. Aileen, a Japanese-born woman who was 31 years his junior, had been in a relationship with Gene for some time by that point. They had been living in his loft in New York City. Gene and Aileen were married by the time they relocated to Minamata in 1971, accompanied by an assistant, Takeshi Ishikawa. They had only planned to stay for three months but ended up documenting the Minamata victims' struggle for three-and-a-half years. "We lived there, got to know the people, and photographed," says Aileen. "The victims were receptive; the feeling was: 'We want the world to know.'"

The real Aileen Mioko Smith was 31 years younger than her husband Gene. Actors Minami and Johnny Depp portray the couple in the movie.

Aileen Mioko Smith co-authored the book Minamata with her husband Gene, capturing some of the photographs herself. The book became the basis for the Minamata Johnny Depp movie. It was first published in 1975 and is one of his most famous works. Eugene and Aileen separated not long after they completed the book and he returned from Japan. He entered into a relationship with a woman named Sherry Suris, with whom he moved into a studio apartment in New York City. As of 2001, Aileen was living in Kyoto, Japan.

Minamata by W. Eugene and Aileen Smith contains their photos as well as a chronicle of the Minamata victims' struggle.

Did W. Eugene Smith rent a small house from the family of one of the victims?

Yes. He and Aileen Mioko Smith, who was his wife at the time, rented a small home from the family of one of the Minamata victims, Toyoko Mizoguchi, who had since passed away. They slept in a room that had been transformed into a shrine to her. Toyoko's photograph was above their bed.

Did the Chisso Corporation refuse to cooperate with the researchers?

Yes. The Minamata true story confirms that Chisso withheld information about its industrial processes. It also withheld the results of some of its own tests that confirmed its factory was responsible. Making it all worse was the fact that the Japanese government, along with other organizations, had a vested interest in seeing that Chisso's chemical factory remained up and running. Some of these organizations went as far as to fund research into alternative causes of Minamata disease in an effort to deflect the blame from the Chisso plant's wastewater.

How much mercury was present in people's bodies who suffered from Minamata disease?

Hair samples were taken from both people suffering from the disease and from those in the area who were showing no symptoms. What researchers discovered was that victims of Minamata disease had mercury levels that were more than 100 times that of an average citizen living in the rest of Japan. A person who didn't live in the area would typically have a mercury level of 4 parts per million (ppm). The highest recorded mercury level in a Minamata victim was 705 ppm. Asymptomatic residents in the area had mercury levels as high as 191 ppm.

Were some of the victims of the Minamata disaster discriminated against and ostracized from the community?

Yes. As victims of Minamata disease suffered and fought for compensation, others in the community took offense and feared that the company that employed them was being confronted with economic ruin. Chisso Corporation had been more willing to compensate the fisheries than the victims, namely because the fisheries were in a stronger position and had a louder voice as part of the Minamata Fishing Cooperative. For some victims, the fear of being ostracized outweighed the fear of the disease itself, so they remained silent. Others risked ostracization and attended a sit-in at the factory gates.

Minamata demonstrators hold photographs of their deceased loved ones (top left) and protestors gather outside the Chisso factory's gates (top right). Bottom: A protest turns chaotic in the Johnny Depp movie. W. Eugene Smith

Did Minamata disease cause birth defects in children?

Yes. For decades, doctors and health officials in the area noticed an elevated occurrence of cerebral palsy and other disorders in infants. What was particularly confusing was that many of these children were born after the initial outbreak and were never fed the contaminated fish. Doctors had assumed that the placenta would protect the growing fetus from any toxins present in the mother's bloodstream. However, the opposite turned out to be true with methylmercury. The placenta actually worked to rid the mother's bloodstream of the toxic chemical and concentrated it in the fetus. The disease in infants became known as Congenital Minamata disease.

W. Eugene Smith's most famous image from his photographic essay on Minamata disease is the December 1971 image of a severely deformed child named Tomoko, who is being held by her mother, Ryoko Uemura, in a small Japanese bath chamber. While pregnant, her mother had unknowingly consumed fish contaminated with methylmercury. The photo, titled Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, was widely published and helped to capture the world's attention. Tomoko (pictured below) suffered from Congenital Minamata disease. She passed away five years later in 1976. Aileen Mioko Smith, who owns the copyright to the photo, decided to remove it from circulation in 2001 out of respect for the family. The mother and daughter are pictured below in a different image.

Ryoko Uemura cradles her daughter, Tomoko Uemura, who was born with Congenital Minamata Disease.

Was W. Eugene Smith attacked for documenting the Minamata victims and their struggle for compensation?

Yes. A Minamata fact check confirms that not everyone looked favorably upon photojournalist W. Eugene Smith's effort to help the Minamata victims and bring worldwide attention to the environmental disaster. In a response to documenting their struggle through staggering black and white photos like Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, his defining image, Gene, then 54, was brutally attacked by Chisso Corporation goons on January 7, 1972. The attack was part of an effort to stop him from continuing to reveal the victims' suffering to the world. The attack happened when Gene and his wife Aileen were covering a meeting at a Chisso factory in Goi, Ichihara city, an hour or so outside of Tokyo.

"They pulled my hair and other reporters got knocked around, but they were heading for Gene," Aileen recalls. The assault left Gene severely injured with permanent damage to his sight in one eye. The nerve that ran from his finger to his neck had been crushed, resulting in temporary blindness in one eye and blackouts when he lifted his arm. He suffered from intense pain and even once told Aileen to grab an axe and split his head open to end his suffering. However, the beating didn't stop him from continuing to photograph the victims and their struggle. During the period when he couldn't lift his arm to snap the photos, he utilized a cable release that he could pull with his mouth.

Like in the Johnny Depp movie, the real W. Eugene Smith was attacked by Chisso workers and suffered nerve damage and significant vision loss in one eye.

Did the Chisso Corporation try to pay W. Eugene Smith $50,000 to hand over the negatives of his photos?

No. While on a tour of the Chisso Corporation factory in the Minamata Johnny Depp movie, W. Eugene Smith (Depp) is offered $50,000 to turn over his negatives. We could not find evidence of this offer being made in real life, but it does effectively dramatize the power and leverage that Chisso had.

We found no evidence that Chisso tried to give the real W. Eugene Smith $50,000 for his negatives.

Did W. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen's photos help the victims win their lawsuit?

Yes. Gene and Aileen's photos helped to bring worldwide media attention and awareness to the Minamata victims' suffering. This in turn also helped to raise funds for the victims' lawsuit. Prior to being published in Gene and Aileen's 1975 book Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Choose to Carry the Burden of Courage, the photos had been published in LIFE Magazine in 1972. The verdict in the nearly four-year-long trial was finally handed down on March 20, 1973. It declared a complete victory for the victims in the litigation group (another group had chosen to go the route of arbitration, with significantly less success).

The government finally started cleaning up Minamata Bay in 1977, but the water wouldn't be considered safe until 1997.

How many people have died from Minamata disease?

In researching the Minamata true story, we learned that of the 2,265 people who were officially verified as having the disease, as of March 2001, 1,784 had died. However, it is believed that many victims remain unverified.

What became of W. Eugene Smith after he returned from documenting the suffering in Minamata, Japan?

As stated earlier, W. Eugene Smith separated from his second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, and lived with a new partner, Sherry Suris, in New York City. He was then offered an opportunity to teach in the Art Department and Department of Journalism at the University of Arizona. He and Sherry moved to Tucson in 1977, but his time at his new job was rather short-lived. He suffered a massive stroke in December of that year. He recovered and kept teaching until a second stroke led to his death on October 15, 1978.

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