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‘Justice will see the light of day’: Minamata disease book coauthor Aileen M. Smith

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mainichi– “There are people getting severely ill, and even dying, because of pollution?” was the reaction when Aileen Mioko Smith first heard about Minamata disease in the United States from her friend in Japan. It was all it took for her and photojournalist Eugene Smith whom she later married to head to Japan to investigate one of the most notorious cases of industrial poisoning in the country’s history. The result of their efforts was the photobook “Minamata.” Now, nearly 50 years later, a film adaptation has been released globally and will hit theaters in Japan on Sept. 23.

Aileen Smith, now 71, was born in Tokyo to an American father and Japanese mother. Aged 11, she moved to the U.S., where people’s comments, like saying “it’s because it was made in Japan” when something broke, plunged her into feelings of deep alienation. When Aileen was in university, the hard look she took at the Vietnam War gave her a keen sense of society’s irrationality. She began research and writing on the late World War II Battle of Okinawa, which helped her resonate with Eugene (who passed away in 1978 at age 59) who was as Aileen described, “left with deep scars mentally and physically, and was feeling how foolish human beings are.”

Aileen and Eugene arrived in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1971 and spent about three years there. They spoke to locals, drank with them, went to court with them. “There is no end to the victims’ suffering,” she thought at the time. “We can go home, but they have to keep living here.” She has long carried that weight, that burden of the locals’ lives, with her in her heart.

Aileen is now an environmental journalist, working toward breaking away from nuclear power. But her roots lie in the spring of 1973, when the Kumamoto District Court delivered its verdict on the mercury poisoning that caused widespread nerve damage and death among Minamata’s people. The court recognized Chisso Corp., the chemical firm behind the methylmercury pollution, as responsible.

“Even today, there is never a moment when that judgement leaves me,” says Aileen. “It showed me that justice will see the light of day.”

In conjunction with the film “Minamata” starring Johnny Depp, Aileen and her late husband Eugene’s book is returning to bookstore shelves. “I want people to once more take into their hearts Minamata disease with their own thoughts and feelings,” she says.