More than 60 years on, Japan's mercury-poison victims fight to be heard

MINAMATA, Japan, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Shinobu Sakamoto was just 15 when she left her home in the southern Japanese fishing village of Minamata to go to Stockholm and tell the world of the horrors of mercury poisoning.

Forty-five years on, she is traveling again, this time to Geneva, to attend from Sunday a gathering of signatories to the first global pact to rein in mercury pollution.

Sakamoto is one of a shrinking group of survivors from a 1950s industrial disaster in which tens of thousands of people were poisoned after waste water from a chemical plant seeped into the Minamata bay. 

The waste contained a toxic organic compound, methylmercury, which can cause severe damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to a condition called Minamata disease. It gives its name to the U.N.-backed treaty that took effect last month.

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Survivors struggle to live with Minamata disease
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Survivors struggle to live with Minamata disease
Congenital Minamata disease patient Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, and her mother Fujie sit in a car as they head for a hospital in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The sister and brother-in-law of Minamata disease patient Jitsuko Tanaka, 64, take care of her as she lies in bed at their home in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. Born in a family of shipbuilders whose home overlooks the Minamata bay, Tanaka used to play on the beach with her older sister, picking and eating shellfish, unaware it was contaminated with mercury. She was almost three, and her sister five, when they lost their ability to move their hands freely and walk properly, becoming the first to be identified as sufferers of Minamata disease. Minamata Bay, which was polluted by wastewater containing methylmercury decades ago, is seen from the window. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An engineer from the National Institute for Minamata Disease collects samples of seawater from Minamata Bay to test for mercury content in Eco Park, an area once polluted by mercury-containing wastewater and later turned into a massive landfill, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A house where Kazuko Egoshita, one of the first people to be officially recognised as victims of Minamata disease, used to live stands in Minamata, Japan, September 12, 2017. Nine of eleven members of the Egoshita family were certified as Minamata disease patients and no one lives in the house now. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
View of JNC Corporation, which was established in 2011 and whose proceeds help pay for compensation of certified Minamata disease patients, is seen in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A stone statue at a memorial for Minamata disease victims is seen in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man fishes near Eco Park, an area once polluted by mercury-containing wastewater and later turned into a massive landfill, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Hirokatsu Akagi, director of Minamata's International Mercury Laboratory, shows pieces of decades-old umbilical cords in test tubes as he demonstrates the method for measuring possible mercury content, at his lab in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A specimen of mercury-contaminated fish from 1956 is displayed at Minamata Disease Information Center in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Supporters for plaintiffs demanding to be certificated as Minamata disease patients carry legal documents before their trial in Kumamoto, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A decades-old umbilical cord, which was sent by someone who wants to have it tested for possible mercury contamination, is displayed at International Mercury Laboratory in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Congenital Minamata disease patient Isamu Nagai high-fives a caretaker as he arrives at Oruge-Noa, a group care home for disabled people including Minamata disease patients, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. Nagai was born in 1957 and cannot walk due to congenitally deformed legs. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Hirokatsu Akagi, director of Minamata's International Mercury Laboratory, demonstrates his method of measuring mercury content in biological materials at his lab in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A caretaker paints the hand of congenital Minamata disease patient Kenji Nagamoto as they make a poster at Hotto Hausu, a facility for disabled people including Minamata disease patients, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. Nagamoto was born in 1959 and was certificated as a congenital Minamata disease patient in 1963. He says his physical strength declined with age due to the Minamata disease. The poster is made for Shinobu Sakamoto, who is scheduled to attend an international conference about the Minamata Treaty in Geneva. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Congenital Minamata disease patient Koichiro Matsunaga holds onto a door to stand up next to the altar for his father at his home in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. Matsunaga was born in Minamata in 1963 and lost his ability to walk several years ago. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A caretaker gives food to congenital Minamata disease patient Yuji Kaneko at Oruge-Noa, a group care home for disabled people including Minamata disease patients, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. Kaneko was born in Minamata in 1955 and all of his family members are certified as Minamata disease patients. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A caretaker pushes congenital Minamata disease patient Isamu Nagai in a wheelchair to take him to a group care home where Nagai lives, in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 13, 2017. Nagai was born in 1957 and cannot walk due to congenitally deformed legs. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Yui Tani, a long-time supporter of Minamata disease patients, helps congenital Minamata disease patient Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, wear her shoes as Sakamoto's mother Fujie stands in the door at their home in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Congenital Minamata disease patient Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, speaks to middle school students about the Minamata disease in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A head protector of Minamata disease patient Jitsuko Tanaka lies on her bed at her home in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Congenital Minamata disease patient Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, receives rehabilitation treatment at a hospital in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Congenital Minamata disease patient Shinobu Sakamoto, 61, speaks to middle school students about the Minamata disease in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Jitsuko Tanaka, 64, one of the first people to be officially recognised as victims of Minamata disease, is being comforted by her sister and brother-in-law at her home in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, September 12, 2017. Born in a family of shipbuilders whose home overlooks the Minamata bay, Tanaka used to play on the beach with her older sister, picking and eating shellfish, unaware it was contaminated with mercury. She was almost three, and her sister five, when they lost their ability to move their hands freely and walk properly, becoming the first to be identified as sufferers of Minamata disease. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon SEARCH "MINAMATA VICTIMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Symptoms worsen with age, leaving some victims grappling with the question of who will care for them after the death of siblings and parents, while others face legal disputes.

"If I don't say something, no one will know about Minamata disease," said Sakamoto, who is one of the few born with the disease who is still able to talk.

"There are still so many problems, and I want people to know."

FEW SURVIVORS

Just 528 people survive from among the 3,000 certified victims of Minamata disease, environment ministry data shows. More than 20,000 people have sought to be designated victims, hoping for legal compensation.

"We need to take seriously the fact that there are still many people raising their hands," said ministry official Koji Sasaki, referring to victims' efforts to win recognition.

Born in a family of shipbuilders whose home overlooks the Minamata bay, Jitsuko Tanaka, 64, used to play on the beach with her older sister, picking and eating shellfish, unaware it was contaminated with mercury.

She was almost three, and her sister five, when they lost the ability to move their hands freely and walk properly, becoming the first to be identified as disease sufferers.

Tanaka's older sister died at age eight. Tanaka survived, but the poisoning left her too weak to walk without support. A few years ago, her family says, even that became impossible.

As she lay motionless in bed, her brother-in-law, a fellow sufferer, said he worried about the patients left behind when family members die.

"After I die, who will take care of her?" asked Yoshio Shimoda, 69.

TIME NO HEALER

Sixty-one years since Minamata disease was identified in 1956, the grim struggles have eased for only a few.

Before the government named methylmercury as its cause in 1968, disease sufferers faced discrimination over fears it was contagious, which deterred many from seeking legal recognition.

People still send in decades-old umbilical cords to be checked for contamination, hoping for evidence to support their claims to be designated as victims, said Hirokatsu Akagi, director of Minamata's International Mercury Laboratory.

Sakamoto, poisoned while still in the womb, considers it her duty to tell the world about the dangers of mercury.

"Minamata disease isn't over; it's not a thing of the past."

(Writing by Minami Funakoshi; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Clarence Fernandez)

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