Today, Japan is known as one of the cleanest places to live on the planet. If I tell you that the developing Japan was full of pollution and environmental hazards, many people might shrug their shoulders in disbelief. However, this is the truth. A few decades ago Japan was struggling with pollution and its consequences. The rate at which Japan built itself from the aftermath of the second world war was exemplary for the world. It was astonishing that the growth rate was around 10 percent for many consecutive years. Nevertheless, this growth was achieved risking so many factors and the environment was one of these.
By 1960, the amount of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide in the air of the archipelago tripled. The quality of air, water, and the land were deteriorating with each passing day. New diseases caused due to pollution were seen in the land of rising Sun. Some of these diseases were first of its kind. Today we will introduce you to a dark history of developing Japan. These were the mass diseases caused by rapid development and pollution. They are also called The Big Pollution Diseases of Japan. Let’s look at them one by one.
It is a neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning. This disease is also called the Chisso-Minamata disease because of the linkage with the Chisso company for the outbreak of this disease. The disease was first seen in Minamata of Kumamoto prefecture from which it got the name “Minamata disease”. Studies showed that the disease was caused by the drainage from Chisso Chemical Company which was back then directly dumped into the Minamata Bay. The waste from the factory was mostly methyl mercury. Mercury got deposited in the fishes and other seafood in the region. Hence, when people in Minamata consumed the contaminated fishes and snails, they suffered from mercury poisoning. The symptoms for Minamata disease was scary. First, the hands and feet get numb followed by muscle fatigue. Slowly, patients lose eyesights, have hearing and speaking problem and then suffer from paralysis. Then, the patient goes to the comma followed by death. Till 2001, there were 2265 victims of this Minamata disease out of which 1784 are dead.
later, the same kind of disease was seen in Niigata prefecture and was called Niigata Minamata disease. The reason was the same i.e, mercury poisoning but this time produced by the chemical plant of the Showa Electrical Company.
Yokkaichi is the largest city in Mie prefecture. In 1960, Japan decided that it will change its energy dependence from coal to petroleum products. Within 10 years, Japan was aiming to double the income of its people. Japan required energy for the projected growth. Thus, several petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants were built in the Yokkaichi region. Japan imported its petroleum products from Middle-East Asia which was high in sulfur content. Combustion of which produced a huge amount of sulfur dioxide in the environment. It is said that the sky in the Yokkaichi region was completely white because of sulfur dust.
People were inhaling the sulfur in the air which led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, asthma, and other breathing problems. Even the fishes in Ise bay were found to be contaminated thus, deteriorating the taste and reducing the sales. Studies showed that people in the Yokkaichi region had 10-20 times increased mortality rates after the sulfur contamination.
Itai-Itai literally translates to “ouch, it’s painful”. This disease was seen among people living in the Toyama region. The disease was caused due to cadmium poisoning. Toyama is a mining area in Japan. People have been mining here since 1589. Toyama Kamioka mine is considered as one of the biggest mines in Japan. This led to the pollution of the Jinzu river nearby. The river was the source of irrigation for people. They also used the river for doing laundry, fishing and even drinking. Cadmium produced from the mines was directly mixed as waste in the river. The cadmium got deposited in seafood. The rice plant also got contaminated and traces of cadmium could be found in rice grown there. People got cadmium contamination from the direct use of these products. The disease affects the spinal system. Bones get weak and brittle due to cadmium. Bone fractures were common among people living in the region and complications like anemia, kidney failure were seen on patients leading to death.
Today, recalling these facts seems like a myth. People are often astonished listening to this dark past of Japan. Modern, Japan is known for its clean roads, safe air, and pollution free environment. The way Japan solved the problem of pollution is a must-learn lesson for all developing countries struggling with pollution due to rapid development.