Japan’s imperial couple, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, is set schedules to visit two historical places in Kumamoto Prefecture this month, places that are associated with past government policies that affected thousands of lives, tore apart families and left hundreds still seeking justice and redress. The imperial couple will visit the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum on Oct. 27 to hear out the experiences of people affected by the world’s worst case of mercury poisoning. They are also set to make a first visit to the National Sanitarium Kikuchi Keifuen in Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture – there they will talk to leprosy patients forced into isolation under a past government program now deemed unconstitutional.
During Japan’s push for economic growth after World War II, a factory in Minamata owned by the Chisso Corporation discharged wastewater containing methyl mercury into the sea. Thousands who ate marine products coming from the contaminated area later complained of numbness, motion disorders and impaired sight. “The Minamata disease has still not come to an end,” says Masami Ogata, 55, who heads a group of kataribe – literally, “storytellers” who tell about their experiences with the Minamata disease. “I believe the imperial couple wants to directly encounter and remember the existence of the victims.” Hundreds of people are still seeking certification as Minamata disease victims, which would entitle them to compensation from the government. Imperial Household Agency officials told Ogata that, “This will not be a ceremony, but an opportunity to hear about the hardships and suffering the patients experienced.”
On Oct. 26, the imperial couple will also present flowers at the charnel house of the Kikuchi Keifuen sanitarium, where the remains of 1,288 leprosy patients are kept. Under a now-repealed policy, the government isolated leprosy patients to prevent a further spread of the disease. Their ties to their family members were severed, and their remains were never claimed for burial in family graves. Yasushi Shimura, 80, the acting head of the residents association at Kikuchi Keifuen, will welcome the imperial couple.
Shimura was placed in the sanitarium when he was 15 after he was diagnosed with leprosy. He married another patient, but they were not allowed to have children, and his wife was forced to have an abortion. He joined a group of plaintiffs who sued the central government in 1998, arguing that its isolation policy was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed two years after the Leprosy Prevention Law was abolished. In 2001, the Kumamoto District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Shimura said he was looking forward to the visit by the imperial couple. “I was born in the same year as the emperor,” he said. “I believe he is someone who truly understands the tragedy of war and the importance of protecting the Constitution.”