Learning from Minamata: Creating high-level well-being for local communities in Japan

June 28, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The path of Japan’s economic and social development after World War II has followed the trajectory of most industrialized countries: the pursuit of high economic growth on the assumption that higher per capita income would ensure people’s life satisfaction. But, according to a survey published by the Japanese central government, life satisfaction constantly declined from 1984 to 2005. Two out of three persons are not satisfied with their overall life. This confirms a paradox first identified by Richard Easterlin (1974): There is a gap between the trends of life satisfaction and growth in per capita GDP.

Figure 1: Happiness Paradox

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Research on subjective well-being shows that important elements of happiness include the possibility to work and be creative, good social relationships, health, life knowledge and life skills. Hence, the key question – at least in industrialized countries at the beginning of the 21st century – is not how to generate more income for people, but how to change the economic and social system in ways that strengthen social relationships and thereby improve well-being.

If we want to leave the economic-welfare-driven development path and move towards one centered around well-being, we need to imagine and experiment with social innovations as well as new measures and indicators for a “happier” society. A deeper look at a real case from a city in Kyushu, Japan, suggests a wider horizon of what is possible.

The case of Minamata

About 20 years ago, when people from Minamata were asked where they come from, they avoided mentioning the name of their community.

Minamata is a small city of around 28,525 people (2008) located in the Kumamoto prefecture on the western side of KyushuIsland. Minamata’s modernization was based on two key goals of the national development strategy envisioned in the Meiji period (1868-1912) Fukoku Kyohei: a wealthy nation and a strong army. In 1908, Nippon Chisso, a company in the vanguard of the chemical industry, built its factory in Minamata. When the factory was established, people in Minamata had high expectations for the modernization of the local economy and regional prosperity. And in fact, Minamata was the first place in Kyushu to be wired for electricity. Industrial development was the core of Japan’s economic strategy and Minamata was surely at its center.

In 1932, the Chisso Company started its operations by combining atmospheric nitrogen with calcium carbide to produce calcium cyanamide, a chemical fertilizer. Nitrogenous fertilizers were key to boosting agricultural production in Japan at the time, due to its lack of arable land and the small-scale nature of its farms. In 1941, it became the first Japanese producer of vinyl chloride. The city’s population grew as the company expanded. After World War II, the factory regained its production capacity and led Japan’s reconstruction and economic development in the postwar era. However, this economic success had an unexpected cost – a severe neurological disease caused by industrial pollution. “Minamata disease,” which consisted of severe brain and nervous system damage, and sometimes death, was officially discovered in 1956. It especially affected people in fishing communities. According to official government measures published in 2001, 2,265 individuals in the area were afflicted, and 1,784 of those victims died as a result of the poisoning and/or the disease.1

At first, the phenomenon was suspected to be some kind of epidemic or mental illness, but it was soon found to be non-infectious. The cause of the Minamata disease was ultimately identified as mercury metal in the effluents from the Chisso factory into Minamata Bay. Before the disease hit human beings through the food chain, fish of Minamata Bay began to float on the surface and cats were acting strangely, ending up by dashing into the ocean to commit suicide.

The number of patients increased; they were forced to go through very difficult lives both physically and mentally. Since it took more than ten years for the government of Japan to officially recognize the role of industrial pollution caused by Chisso, the victims of Minamata disease were virtually ignored by the company, the government and local people, resulting in great mental anguish and social decline. This was partly because the Chisso Company was so economically important to Minamata that many local residents, who heavily relied on Chisso for their livelihoods, were afraid of confronting the problem. For those identified as suffering Minamata disease, their lives became a hell as community people shunned them; others with severe physical symptoms tried to hide their condition lest the community ostracize them. Some patients were both verbally and physically abused even by family members and people who once were good friends. In fact, the social stigma toward people in Minamata became a nationwide phenomenon. Passengers on trains entering Minamata shut their windows. Marriages were broken off if one of the people came from Minamata. It became customary for Minamata residents not to reveal where they came from.

Although Minamata disease was discovered in 1956, the wastewater discharge was not stopped immediately. Rather, the Chisso Company simply changed the location of its mercury effluent outlet. This continued until 1968 when the government officially recognized the effluent of the Chisso plant as the cause of the Minamata disease. The year of this acknowledgment was not accidental. The Chisso Company opened its new factory in Chiba prefecture with a new petroleum-based technology that year. The carbide-based technology was no longer needed, and the official recognition of Minamata disease would not hurt the nation’s industrial development. The government’s inaction for a decade had incurred enormous costs for people in Minamata, but also for those who lived in Niigata prefecture, which was afflicted by the so-called “second Minamata disease,” caused by Showa Denko Company using the same old technology as Chisso.

People-driven initiative and public-citizen partnership

In 1969, victims of the Minamata disease filed the first lawsuit against Chisso, followed by a series of lawsuits by others that caused terrible divisions between those who were compensated and those who were not. The physical and mental toll of the disease, and the social trauma experienced by the community, went on for more than forty years. This started to change in 1994 when Masazumi Yoshii, who had been a member of Minamata city council for 19 years, was elected Mayor. He brought about a fundamental change in the public administration, from top-down to bottom-up, by establishing communication with the different patient-groups – who, by then, did not get along well with each other. Yoshii also negotiated with the central and the prefecture government to finalize the compensation accord for all Minamata disease patients, regardless of the seriousness of their conditions.

On May 1, 1994, Yoshii gave a historic speech at the memorial ceremony of the Minamata disease. He offered a formal apology of the Minamata city government towards the Minamata disease patients for its lack of support for the last forty years and declared the vision of together building a new Minamata with a spirit of mutual helpfulness. He called it MOYAINAOSHI, a term which comprises searching for solutions through dialogue and collaboration. He declared these to be the core elements for restoring social relationships among people and between communities, the environment and the people of Minamata. These core elements became what is now called the MOYAINAOSHI movement.

Let’s have a look at the key actions taken by the government and local people since 1994 (Kusago 2011).

1. A new vision

Two years before Yoshii‘s 1994 announcement, Minamata city officials declared their ambition to change their development path from one emphasizing high productivity and growth to an environmentally friendly model. The vision was to create a Model Environment City.

2. An innovative “environment meister”2

Minamata City has designed the environment meister program, which was implemented in 1998. This program offers certification for safe, healthy and environmentally sensitive products. Certification as a meister has been granted to 28 producers of pesticide-free rice, tea, mandarin oranges, vegetables, and other products like sardines without preservatives. To be qualified as a meister, six criteria must be met:

  • Constant production of safe, environmentally friendly and healthy products over five years;
  • Experience making such products using natural materials and avoiding chemical substances, etc.;
  • Knowledge about and experience with techniques for making products that are safe for environment and health;
  • Involvement in activities related to regional environmental problems and environmental conservation;
  • Knowledge of environmental problems and environmental conservation; and
  • Knowledge of the problems attributed to environmental pollution, including Minamata Disease.

3. Grassroots action

The new direction taken by the city government after 1994 motivated local residents to engage in the rebuilding of community through grassroot actions. One example is a women’s waste reduction group that improved an ambitious garbage sorting program started by the municipality in 1993. The women studied the root cause of garbage production and found that plastic trays used by stores were a major problem. After carefully surveying usage of trays and vinyl bags at retail shops, they negotiated successfully with the major retail shops to agree to stop using the trays. In addition, the women’s groups started distributing shopping bags to all residents to reduce the usage of vinyl shopping bags. They also introduced a certification for “eco-shops,” which are stores that promote the conservation of resources and energy, reduce the volume of waste and work on recycling. It was the women who substantially reduced the city’s output of garbage.

4: Neighborhood study, or “Jimotogaku”

Minamata has both fishing communities and mountain communities. While people in fishing communities have suffered Minamata disease for more than fifty years, people in mountain communities, while suffering less from the disease, faced another problem: urbanization and out-migration. The overwhelming number of jobs in modern Japan was generated in urban or semi-urban areas. Thus, those looking for work, especially among the young, tend to move to big cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Fukuoka. In Minamata’s mountain communities the number of residents had declined for years. This situation was seen as the inevitable “fate” of the rural communities in a time of modern development and industrialization.

Tetsuro Yoshimoto, a city officer in Minamata, had himself fretted about the demise of once-beautiful ways of life in the region. He realized that the revitalization of mountain communities might be possible if the city of Minamata looked at them through the lens of MOYAINAOSHI. Yoshimoto saw Minamata city as a whole – an ecosystem centered around the Minamata River flowing from the mountain communities to the fishing area. He proposed that changing local people’s mindsets by making them aware of all the resources they possess in their own local communities could be possible by bringing visitors to the mountain communities. Most of the visitors, whose primary purpose in visiting Minamata is to learn about Minamata disease issues, asked local people to guide them in the local village.

Over 3,000 people between 2004 and 2008, many of them from abroad, enjoyed the rural setting and were impressed by the beautiful landscape and the unique livelihoods. In the course of interacting with their guests, local guides were surprised to hear such positive feelings about their communities and such interest in their lifestyles. They had assumed that they were seen as hopelessly “backward” in the modern world. After serving as guides to visitors, they gradually came to understand that they were not “behind,” but rather, that they had the potential to develop their communities by themselves. The organized visits proved to be a simple way to enhance local people’s autonomy through mutual learning with outsiders.

Based on this experience, one rural community, Kagumeishi, has started a living museum of Kagumeishi. Women opened a food catering business adopting a philosophy of local production for local consumption. The primary school of Kagumeishi has developed a school play about the history of the community, with local music and dance. To practice the script, elderly resdidents taught primary school students how to sing and dance. Kagumeishi received an award from the central government as the best practice to revive community in 2005. Currently, there are four communities adopting the neighborhood study method in Minamata.

This method, called “Jimotogaku,” was born in the local communities of Minamata. Jimotogaku as a method and a practice focuses on existing local resources, including nature, history, customs, and people, and facilitates the community’s interest in managing its resources. “Stop asking for what we do not have, let us start from finding out what we have” is a principle of Jimotogaku. The method also emphasizes collaboration among “Soil and Wind,” i.e., community people and outsiders to find out what the local communities have and how to use those local resources to improve their own well-being. One of the Curator’s Rules of Thumb in Minamata is: “Never say, ‘There is nothing particular in this village.’” Jimotogaku aims at building pride in a community’s identity, traditions and lifestyle, and in enhancing autonomy in the design and implementation of local development (Yoshimoto 2008).

Revitalizing community from below

A once-broken Japanese community, where people saw only darkness and hopelessness in their local economy, has restored its social bonds and relationships with nature. Minamata had once pursued its well-being through a development model based on growth and foreign technology. Today, the city focuses on the reconstruction and recovery of social inclusion, environmental conservation and the promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage. Minamata has used the neighborhood study method, Jimotogaku, and a people-centered vision to convert a city famous for industrial pollution and an ongoing environmental disaster into a model environmental city. Minamata’s new development path was initiated by an excellent leader and followed up with concrete actions taken by his city hall staff – together with local residents. It has shown how government can forge an exemplary public-citizen partnership to reverse a troubled local situation and develop sustainable new models of action. The people of Minamata, in fact, were awarded a national prize for their work in revitalizing their local community.

It is easy to feel despair when witnessing catastrophic harms caused by a development model based on growth and the depletion of resources, and the heinous acts of large corporations and banks. The recent history of Minamata, a one-time beneficiary of the “growth model” as well as its victim, shows that it is possible to rescue and improve even extremely distressed communities hurt by tragic acts. It is possible to redesign our communities, neighborhoods and livelihoods to pursue a more balanced form of well-being.

Today, when people are asked where they come from, they proudly say: From Minamata.


  • Easterlin, R. 1974. “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence.” In P. A. David and M. W. Reder (eds.), Nations and Households in Economic Growth. New York. Academic Press. 89–125.
  • Kusago, T. 2011. “A Sustainable Well-Being Initiative: Social Divisions and the Recovery Process in Minamata, Japan.” In Sirgy, J., ed. Community Quality-of-Life Indicators: Best Cases V. Springer. 97–111.
  • Yoshimoto, T. 2008. Jimotogaku wo hajimeyou (Let’s Start Neighborhood Study). Iwanami Junior Shinsho, Tokyo.

Tags: Japan, well-being