My Internship in Japan: Minamata

banner minamataWell hello there, it’s been a while! Time to bring Nippaku back to life and disclose what I have been up to during these blog-less months. On September 14th, I started my internship journey in Minamata 水俣市, Kumamoto prefecture in central Kyushu (in the South of Japan). As a Japanologist doing an advanced Master’s program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, it was only natural that I chose Japan as my destination for a two-month internship with a local organization. Since one of my other interests is sustainability, I sank my teeth into the sustainable development of rural Japanese areas. I started looking for possible topics, et voilà, I came across jimotogaku 地元学, or ‘local learning’ in translation. I promise to tell you all about jimotogaku once my research is more or less wrapped up (aka when I have finished my thesis), but for now I will provide some pictures and explanation about Minamata. 


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Susubaru view

I arrived on September 15th in Fukuoka, from where I took the shinkansen to Minamata and was picked up by my host and his granddaughter. The host family I stayed with is located in Susubaru 薄原, a small village in the mountains of Minamata with a decreasing population of around 100 inhabitants at the moment. Farmland in Japan is located on hills and mountains while urban areas are developed on plains. This is the complete opposite in Belgium: farmland, literally “flat land” (platteland in Dutch) encloses densely populated cities. It became a running joke when I told them that the highest Belgian mountain, Signal de Botrange, barely reaches 700 metres – a height they would not even consider worthy of the term “mountain”.

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Takeyama 竹山, “bamboo mountain”, property of my host family. I regularly helped out by cutting and chopping trees, burning wood and repairing the fence.

In Susubaru, we were surrounded by a mixed forest of cypress and chestnut trees amidst sky-scraping bamboo, and everything was still lush green at that time. Due to heavy rainfall and the subtropical climate, nature is difficult to keep under control, and locals could spend a great deal of their time trimming weeds, chopping wood or clearing the roads. The forests and fields are regularly trampled by wild boar, who come down from higher up in the mountains every night and snack on fallen fruit such as persimmons and chestnuts. Farmers protect their fields with electrified fences. Apparently, these animals also hate the color pink, so occasionally I could spot flashy pink wires. Besides wild boar, there are also deer (I could hear their cry from time to time) and raccoon dogs, and the air is always  buzzing with insect sounds. Luckily, I brought my ear plugs to guarantee a quiet night of  sleep.

The city of Minamata itself has a troubled history, which was partly the reason why I went there. Starting out as a fairly insignificant coastal but mountainous village, the city’s population boomed with the arrival of Chisso, a chemical company, in 1908. At the time it all went wrong, Chisso employed or indirectly affected the livelihoods of 25% of Minamata’s inhabitants: the exponential population growth (twice the size of today’s population) paralleled Chisso’s increasing output. This was one of the reasons authorities were reluctant to stop the disaster at once: it was a dilemma of helping a few victims or helping all people in the city to make a decent living.

So what happened? Between 1932 and 1968, Chisso – consciously – dumped toxic waste water containing mercury in the Minamata bay and the inland Shiranui sea. Bacteria in the water transformed it into methylmercury when they came into contact with the toxic substance. Once consumed in large doses, directly or by eating the fish that had ingested the methylmercury, the substance causes neurological damage, going from muscle weakness to paralysis and death. The disease is also congenital, which means that unborn children can be exposed to methylmercury poisoning in the womb. Until this day, there is no cure, only drug therapy to reduce symptoms and the pain. For more in-depth information, watch this movie by SciHow [English] and original footage here [Japanese].

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Mother bathing her daughter Tomoko who suffered from Minamata disease, photographed by Eugene Smith – Wikimedia commons

The first signs of mercury poisoning were observed in “dancing” cats and birds who couldn’t fly, and dead fish that washed ashore. In 1956, a girl with strange symptoms was brought to the factory hospital. Many more would follow, with an alarming high mortality rate. It was discovered that the mercury had accumulated in fish and shellfish, the main source of nutrition for  fishing communities in Minamata. The condition was coined “Minamata disease”. Despite the fact that it became pretty clear it was Chisso that had caused so many living beings to suffer at the end of the 1950s, the company did anything it could to not be held responsible – and was helped in doing so by the authorities out of economic interests. They started discharging wastewater directly into the Minamata river instead of the Hyakken harbour, which led to even more pollution, and they did not cooperate with the research. Finally, in 1968, they stopped poisoning and killing people, but not before hiring yakuza to beat up protesting victims. In the end, Chisso paid hundreds of millions of Yen in compensation money. But yes, the factory is still there, renamed as JNC, among the many other branch plants they hold around the country.

Minamata’s dark history is linked with how the jimotogaku movement came into existence, but later more on that. At the time of the pollution scandal, Minamata was in full chaos. Victims’ families were enraged with Chisso, Chisso employees were enraged with patients (this contradiction occurred even within families), city people thought patients were faking it to get compensation, the mountain communities held a grudge because they could not sell their products anymore due to stigma…Today, the stained image of Minamata might still affect how people think about the city. In the aftermath of the pollution scandal, inhabitants of Minamata were strongly discriminated against: somehow, people thought the disease was contagious or that they had brought it upon themselves. They could not sell products, work outside of the city or marry non-Minamata citizens. When the train passed Minamata, travelers closed the windows. The staff at a hotel was ordered to throw away the linen of a group of Minamata school kids on a trip. One man told me that he went with his team to Fukuoka to play a baseball match, and that the arena was empty because not one supporter wanted to be in the vicinity of Minamata residents.

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recycling station in Susubaru

From the 1980s on, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up Minamata’s image, leading to great results. Minamata profiled itself as an environment-friendly city when they adopted the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and became an Ecotown in 2001. Remarkable actions are the establishment of a strict 21-item recycle system, the Meister Program for local producers of healthy, safe and organic products, an eco-shop certification for craftsman and the reduction of waste in general. Knowing that Japanese people love food and deeply value safety, I noticed that people especially appreciate organic products since these are safe and healthy to eat. The Meister Program recognizes 32 “Meisters” of which I had the pleasure to meet and even befriend some.

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Matsumoto Kazuya serving tea in his tea field

The Matsumoto family (桜野園 Sakura noen) and the Amano family (天の製茶園 Amano no seichaen) are two producers of organic tea in Minamata. Both housing three generations in their homes, they produce a rather rare kind of tea, Japanese black tea (和紅茶 wakōcha), among the more generic green and roasted tea. As a matter of fact, Amano Hiroshi and Matsumoto Kazuya are two of the four Japanese black tea “kings” in Japan, and they sell worldwide. I was so lucky to try Matsumoto teas on several occasions and received a guided tour around their tea fields. I was also welcomed for four days at the Amano tea farm in Ishitobi, a hamlet located 600 meters high, where I helped the family out with sorting bancha tea leaves. I learned that the reason for only producing naturally grown tea there is because of the position of the Amano’s farm on top of the mountain. Due to the pollution scandal, awareness had been raised that contaminating something as precious as water is the worst thing you could do to yourself and other people since you are responsible for the source of the irrigation that flows into other people’s wells and fields. It was also very interesting to see how the drink is made from plant till cup. Bringing back home literally tens of tea packages, I must admit I drink more tea than ever (tea related blog posts here and here). Better than too much coffee or soda, right?

Minamata people also eat lots of white small fish from the bay (safe to eat now), mikan-oranges that are grown more upward the hills (organic mikan jam in the picture left below) and local specialities like kuri 栗 (chestnuts), satoimo 里芋 (village potato), akebi  アケビ (chocolate vine, right picture) and take no ko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots). I ate several portions of chestnuts for dessert, they are delicious when boiled till soft and sweetened with sugar and red bean paste. Below in the middle you see a picture of cooked chestnuts, also great as an afternoon snack. Those who are familiar with Japanese culture, know how fascinated/obsessed the Japanese are about food. Hence, the local cuisine was a topic that came up multiple times a day. Locals are really proud of the healthy, traditional meals they serve with home-grown ingredients.

Another (organic) asset for Minamata is rice. Being the staple food of Japan, it is unthinkable that the mountains of Minamata would lack the numerous rice fields and terraces a rural area is characterized by. Traditionally, every household has their own rice paddy, which produces enough rice to provide for the whole family plus a little extra that can be sold on the local market. Farmers who specialize in rice are rather rare. Nevertheless, familial rice fields are increasingly abandoned due to depopulation, draught of the irrigation system and lack of labor force. When I arrived in Minamata, the rice plants were already bright yellow. Once they turn this shade and drop their “heads”, they are ready for harvest. If necessary, the locals call friends and family to the countryside to help out because sowing and harvesting is some labor-intensive work. They cut the rice stalks with a machine or a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and let them dry in the sun on a wooden construction. After ten days, the stalks are dehulled.   

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Harvested rice stalks

Normally, harvesters use a machine to cut and bind most of the rice stalks, but I got acquainted with someone who not only grew his rice without fertilizers but also cut all stalks manually. The work is notorious for causing severe back ache. One of the reasons elder Japanese ladies shuffle around with an extremely bent back is said to be because of cutting and binding rice stalks. 20170926_173820Toiling in the heat sure is exhausting, and I talk from experience since I helped out with the harvest on the collectively owned rice paddy of Minamaru Kitchen, a community restaurant that only uses local and seasonal ingredients. After dehulling, the produced rice – between 60 and 90 kilos –  was bagged and taken to the kitchen. Speaking of Minamaru Kitchen,  I really liked the idea of its collective ownership, the many activities that were held there and the entrepreneurial spirit of the co-owners. The main forces behind the Kitchen are pastry chef Sasehara, optician Kawata and Mrs. Matsumoto, the wife of the tea farmer I wrote about earlier. The Kitchen tiess together a network of people with a shared interest in the sustainable development of the community and its small economy. I also attended a couple of lectures there and found myself inspired by new ideas and examples.

The picture in the middle shows a bottle of cider (which is a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade drink in Japan), produced with natural spring water from Kagumeishi hamlet. On one of my last days I went along to tap some fresh water from the source. It is free from any charge and extremely clean, since the water is filtered through untouched mountain land. It is said that the people residing around the source live a long and healthy life – the current inhabitants were centenarians. I met some locals and visitors who came to fill their bottles regularly at such spots because of the taste, high quality and spiritual meaning of the water. In fact, you can often find a place of veneration close to the water source, like a small shrine from stone with gifts in it, to honor the water spirits. Bigger shrines can similarly feature a stream with spring water. I was told there are seven natural water sources in Minamata alone. Besides, there is a residential area called Yu no tsuru 湯の鶴 “crane from hot water” in Minamata with onsen 温泉, or hot springs.

Water is so important it dictates the rules of agricultural life. Irrigation is essential to a succesful rice harvest: that is why all paddies are located next to a river while at the same time water flows from the mountains in the direction of this river, creating an abundant supply of liquid for the rice plants. Behind the paddies are vegetable fields that need less water and then there are the houses, closer to the hills for wood logging and fruit picking. Concerning the climate, Minamata’s is kind of wet. Farmers do not work outside on rainy days, so they plan from day-to-day, disregarding fixed schedules for days off like weekends. On rainy days, relatives are visited and work inside the house is done. Locals also like to catch fish or play in the river in their free time. Due to its history of pollution, water is even more valued as an asset in Minamata. I was surprised by how clean water bodies are over there, certainly compared to the rivers in my home country (you can regularly spot rusty bikes and garbage floating on the surface)…

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Mountains, rivers, forests, villages… Minamata has it all.

In short, nature in Minamata is impressive, a view that locals might be used to, but spectacular for Belgian eyes. Life on the countryside is also very distinct from city life, and interesting to dive into. I must admit that this time I experienced quite a culture shock, something that was not the case when I studied in Kobe for a year!


I hope this post informed you a little bit about the city of Minamata and life in rural Japan. In the next part, I will describe the things I did and learned during my trips around Kyushu. Till next time!

[all pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise]