Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Minamata Revisited

I wonder how many people remember Minamata. That town in Kyushu where the Chisso Corporation released all that mercury into the water between 1932 and 1968? Where even though they discovered it was killing and maiming people as early as 1956, it still took the government twelve years to make them stop? And where it only stopped because some outsider – in this case, an American photographer named Eugene Smith – made the dirty secret public? Where they poisoned the rivers with mercury and got away with it because they were corporate entities and government officials know who butters their bread (or in this case pickles their cucumbers)?

The more you dig into that story, the more you lose confidence in the whole human race. Eugene Smith was attacked by a Chisso employee and never totally recovered. Local people shunned the victims and that led to victims keeping quiet. Outsiders came in and ran lab tests, the company itself sponsored research, and then both sat on the results for ten years while the polluting continued. All this was justified much as the right wing in America now justifies dismantling the environmental protection agency in order to keep jobs – by which they mean, of course, keep dirty corporations afloat. The loss of Chisso as a local employer was simply too high a price to pay. They were too big to fail.

Because they sat on information that would have prevented the spread of such environmental pollution practices, a second plant, this time in Niigata, was found to be causing the same kind of pollution in 1965. This time the plant was not the sole local employer and lacked the power to make the truth disappear. As a result, the connection came out and this caused people to want to go back and reopen the research in Minamata. That’s the good news. The bad news is law suits are still pending today, over a half century after the crime against humanity was first exposed.*

Then there is the example of Midori Juuji – Japan’s “Green Cross” Agency, a private pharmaceutical company, despite the suggestion it might have something to do with the red cross. When I hear someone on the right speak of government incompetence, and insist the private sector and the free market and deregulation is the way to go, I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck and force them to read the history of the Midori Juuji.

Midori Juuji was originally founded five years after the end of World War II as a blood bank, and many of its original founders were members of Japan’s Unit 731, the unit that performed medical experiments on 10,000 Chinese and Koreans to develop biological warfare weapons. Limbs were amputated to measure the length of time it took to die from blood loss, vivisections were performed, female prisoners were injected with syphilis, and on and on – all in the name of a scientific approach to winning the war. In order to get life back to normal, General MacArthur decided not to prosecute these guys in 1948 and they went back to business as usual.

Some of them founded Midori Juuji and business as usual included persuading Japan’s hemophiliacs that their HIV-tainted blood was safe, well after they were in possession of information to the contrary. Nearly half of Japan’s hemophiliacs died as a result.

I remember the shock I felt when I began getting involved in Japan’s efforts to deal with the AIDS crisis back in the early 90s at discovering the degree to which government agencies were involved. Focused as I was on analysis of cultural behavior, I understood in principle how a Confucist paternalism could be channeled into cultural practices, but seeing it nose to nose was another thing. I remember once having a doctor refuse to speak to me directly: he would speak only to his nurse and his nurse would talk with me.

Over and over I began to take note of how often when people in authority made questionable decisions they routinely took the utilitarian argument that it was for “the general welfare,” or “the greater good,” in places where I would have expected them to observe the rule of law or some individual’s civil or human right. Japanese defended the practice of doctors telling family members of a cancer diagnosis, rather than the cancer patient himself – on the grounds “it might make him depressed and give up the will to live.” If I left something on a train I would almost always get it back – that was the good news – the bad news is I would get scolded. The train management felt it had an obligation to teach me to be a better person. Signs in parks in America cite the city ordinance for not being a jackass. In Japan, the sign is apt to say something like, “Let’s love the flowers.” Everywhere you looked you found evidence that one lived not as an individual among individuals but as a member of society with social obligations governing your every decision. And that meant surrender to authority, if you were at the bottom, and overreaching authority if you were at the top. And a fear of not being able to read the social signals at the bottom and a fear of taking too much individual responsibility at the top.

Much of the time outrageous paternalism (to our non-Japanese eyes) stayed at the level of anecdotal evidence of cultural difference, and we always concluded, after exchanging such stories, that we had the obligation as anthropologists (even if we were only very amateur anthropologists) to take a relativist position on cultural values, and not impose our own.

This all broke down, of course, when you began to sense there were times when paternalism was used as an excuse to mask cowardice and greed. When what it was all about, in the end, was not some local cultural oddity but universal human weakness.

All these memories are back with me today because I just finished reading in The New York Times an article by Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, who reveal that Japan has done it again. They have been withholding information, it turns out, on the degree of the severity of the nuclear fallout following the disaster at Fukushima. Bureaucrats in Tokyo, “operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism,” are now exposed as having lied by omission. And they are defending their decisions as having been made with the best of intentions – to keep the country from panicking.

This is a story to watch. There’s no telling what will come of this. Change comes slowly most of the time to Japan. It’s possible nothing will come of this. But cultural values do change, and one of the ways of researching cultural values is to see what happens in cases of cultural conflict or in moments of stress. What once was touted as Japanese cultural practices, the refusal to accept personal responsibility, the acceptance of authority, may turn out to have been merely holdouts from a more innocent and pre-democratic time.

Democracy now has a firm hold in Japan, and one can hope Japanese will exercise their rights to make demands of their political leaders.

Of course, there’s a third possibility. They could dumb down and begin believing, as Americans do, that the world is whatever we choose to see. Japanese may not go the route of insisting Darwin was wrong, and the world is only 6000 years old. Or that Obama, not Bush, began the first stimulus package, probably because he was born in Kenya just as you know when Santa Claus comes down from the cross and sees his shadow we know we’re going to have twelve days of Christmas. But they could easily come up with another form of tailor-made reality, parallel to ours.

The tragedy in Japan continues to unfold, and every day I ache a little more for what’s happening in my adopted country – I still have not found the courage to give up my permanent residence, my Japanese “green card.”

I wonder. Can they find a way to hold these lowlifes responsible?

There’s an interesting sidenote to the story. Naoto Kan, Japan’s current prime minister, whose career is now on the skids for not managing the disaster (his popularity is at about 18% at present), is the guy who finally stood up to Midori Juuji and exposed the complicity of the Health Ministry’s Abe Takeshi in covering up the HIV-tainted blood scandal.

Plus ├ža change…

*Correction: A friend just informed me the Chisso case was finally settled in March of last year. The point can still be made it took half a century, but I apologize for not checking that fact before posting.


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