In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

137 5 M e r c u r y ’ s O f f s p r i n g T o this juncture, we have examined how the modern industrial endeavors of insecticide production and application and of copper , zinc, and lead mining introduced poisons to human bodies and caused pain. Both the organophosphate parathion and such heavy metals as cadmium in mining waste entered rice plants through engineered irrigation channels and paddy systems to become part of the food web and, ultimately, a part of bodies. This chapter turns our attention to the marine environments surrounding the Chisso fertilizer and plastics factory in Minamata City. Here organic mercury used as a catalyst in highly advanced chemical production was discharged into the marine ecosystem , where it biomagnified in the food web and poisoned that being at the pinnacle of the global food chain: the human fetus. The Chisso chemical plant and its engineered surroundings are a perfect example of a hybrid metabolism because both depended on the naturally occurring marine environment to function. Just as the Kamioka mines flushed waste into the Jinzū River basin, so too did the Chisso plant flush mercuric waste into its surroundings. The manner in which mercury behaved in the marine ecosystem and within human and nonhuman bodies constitutes the bulk of our story. This is because understanding how industrial disease caused pain in Minamata means understanding the manner in which natural and 138 Mercury’s Offspring anthropogenic agencies function in concert. The results of these agencies became the global namesake of mercury poisoning: Minamata disease. It disfigured children and adults and remains the best-known episode discussed in this book. In the introduction, I promised to imitate a Hmong storyteller’s technique by connecting seemingly unrelated incidents in Japanese history. In describing Hmong storytelling, Anne Fadiman writes (in a passage I have already cited) that the “world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.”1 No environmental pollution episode explored in this book has as many elements “that may not seem to be connected but actually are” as the outbreak of methylmercury poisoning in Minamata. Therefore , this chapter is divided into two parts. Part I starts with a description and interpretation of the pain suffered by one Minamata disease patient after she underwent an abortion at Kumamoto University Hospital. It then spirals outward to talk about the various connections between this woman ’s pain and the marine environments in which she lived. To do so, we investigate the histories of Japanese fishing communities, the role of cats in coastal ecologies, bioaccumulation, and the life cycles of two other organisms important for our story: the mussel called hibarigaimodoki and the anchovy called katakuchiiwashi. Bridging these ecological connections is critical to understanding why this patient suffered the pain she did. Part II will depart from the realm of ecological and historical connections to investigate cultural and medical ones. Pa r t I Mercury Poisoning and Pain After dark, in Kumamoto University Hospital, forty-five-year-old Sakagami Yuki, a fisherwoman from a village near Minamata City, struggled alone to sit upright in her hospital bed. After a life at sea, her once beautiful skin now appeared wrapped too tightly around her emaciated body. The bed creaked loudly and jostled precariously as her slender arms hoisted her thin body upright. Fidgeting, she looked down toward the floor, searching for an oily fish that had slipped from her chopsticks moments earlier. As Mercury’s Offspring 139 she scanned the poorly lit floor, the chopsticks clattered noisily against the plate that she clenched in her quaking hands. Different parts of her body often shook uncontrollably: she could only partially govern her movements. “Come here, darling,” she pleaded to the fish. “Don’t run away from your mamma.” As she spoke, a nervous smile formed on her lips. Still quaking, she positioned her arms beneath her hips and unsteadily eased herself from the hospital bed. It creaked loudly, again. Once down, she began crawling on her hands and knees on the floor. Spotting the fish, she had to use both hands to grab her dinner. “Now, don’t you try to escape,” she scolded it. “I’ll put you out of your misery once and for all.” She then stuffed the morsel into her mouth...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.