In the middle of the last century, along the Japanese shoreline, the people of the tiny village of Minamata lived a simple life. Some were farmers, tending animals and fields. Many were fishermen.
Each morning, they set out in their small boats to bring in as many fish as they could catch and haul in from the bay. The villagers sold their fish, and also fed their families with their catches. They were thankful for a good meal. What they did not finish, they fed to their cats. Sometimes the village cats would snatch a fish from the docks. The cats loved the fish almost as much as the fishermen.
One night, after a hearty meal of fish, the villagers heard a strange noise. When they looked out their windows, they gasped at the sight. A tomcat was on its hind legs, hopping and spinning, twirling and flipping, as if dancing to a jig only he could hear. The villagers laughed. The cat danced all night through the streets of Minamata.
The next night, there were two cats dancing, making the villagers laugh twice as hard. The night after that, there were three, and more came to the streets to join the dance each night until all the cats in the village danced, crazy with the unheard music.
One night, a little girl called for her cat. She loved to feel his soft, warm fur against her cheek as she slept, the cat beside her on the pillow. Outside, she saw her cat dancing, and she pleaded with him to come home. Her cat danced as if he could not hear her, only the silent music that made him dance. The little girl’s mother told her to come in, it was late, the cat would tire himself and come back soon.
The next morning, the little girl rushed outside, calling for her cat. She ran through the streets but couldn’t find him. She ran to the dock where her father, a fisherman, kept his boat. His boat was gone. Her father had set out fishing very early, as always. There on the dock lay the little girl’s cat. She shook him to wake him, thinking he’d gotten so tired from dancing that he’d fallen asleep here.
But he wouldn’t wake up, for he was dead. She gently carried him home. As she walked, she saw other dead cats along the dock and all through the streets. All of the dancing cats were dead.
Crying, the little girl showed her mother the cat. Her mother, though almost due to have a new baby, helped her daughter dig a hole to bury their beloved cat.
The next week, the little girl forgot her sadness when she heard her mother’s cries. The midwife helped deliver the little girl’s new sister. But when the baby came out, the midwife gasped, and nearly dropped the newborn. She lay the baby on the mother’s stomach, and the mother began to wail because the baby could not.
The little girl crept in by her mother’s bed, and looked at her new sister. Her eyes grew bright. The baby looked like a new kitten – her hands were like claws, her tiny body curled like her own cat’s used to on the pillow at night. Her mother held the baby closer, and the newborn made some kittenish grunts, and opened her eyes. The mother shed more tears when she saw that her new daughter couldn’t see.
Her mother’s wails were echoed by other mothers in the village when their own babies were born: some were blind, some had legs that would never support them, some would never speak. Like the cats, most of these babies would die before their years should rightfully have ended.
It was not until a stranger came to the village that the mystery was solved. The water was poisoned, the stranger said, and the fish in the water were also poisoned. Anyone eating the fish – cat or human – would likewise be poisoned.
The stranger took photographs of a chemical company dumping its waste into the bay where the fishermen caught their fish. After the stranger’s photographs were published, the company was made to clean up the bay. Toward the end of the century, the water in the bay was said to be safe.
The stranger, who had been beaten by thugs for taking the photographs, eventually died, too, his brain bleeding from too many beatings.
If not for the stranger, the villagers might all have died from the mercury that poisoned their fish. The new century brought new hope for the people of Minamata.
Across the globe in America, the new century brought a new president who encouraged the people of his country to embrace energy from power plants, even though scientists proved that emissions from these plants were harmful to people and animals. This new president favored oil and coal because his family made its money from those industries. The people who ran the factories and power plants cried out to him: “Please, dear president, help us! We can run much more efficiently – and profitably – if you take away these silly restrictions.”
And the president smiled, for these companies gave him campaign money. “Of course I’ll help,” he told them, and bade his environmental minister to loosen the longstanding pollution rules. The factories and power plants were allowed to spew terrible things into the air of America – things that made old people and children sick, so that they had to stay indoors, away from wind that could carry harmful particles, including mercury. The coal plants spewed more mercury into the atmosphere, where it gathered in rain clouds, then fell into the waters with the rain. The fish in the waters collected it in their bodies. The scientists tested the fish, and warned people not to eat them.
The president did not believe the scientists. He would not read the reports, thinking they were trying to take his profits away.
One night at the White House, the president had invited many guests for a fine big meal of fish. He’d show those scientists, he thought. After the dinner, the president stood on the front steps of the White House in his cowboy boots, waving goodbye to his guests. Among the last to leave was a couple who’d brought along their little girl.
“Come along,” the mother said, “it’s past your bedtime.”
The little girl pleaded with her mother, “Please can we wait ? I want to watch the cat a little while.”
The president walked in his big cowboy boots to where the little girl stood on the lawn, just beyond the porch. He laughed when he saw the cat – it was flipping and spinning, twisting and hopping, as if dancing a jig to music only the cat could hear.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the president said. And for once, he was right. For on the grass near the dancing cat lay some leftover fish from dinner.
The Japanese chemical company was Chisso.
The photographer was W. Eugene Smith, whose photos of Tomoko Uemura and other Minamata villagers poisoned by mercury forced the cleanup of the bay. He died of a brain hemorrhage.
In Pennsylvania in 2004, 45% of lake fish were found to exceed the safety levels for mercury. [“Environmental group finds mercury in 45 percent of PA's lake fish,” by Dan Nephin, AP, Aug. 3]
By March 2005, EPA is expected to loosen Clean Air Act standards for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. [ “EPA: Mercury plan would help kids and women, avoid coal politics,” by John Heilprin, AP, Aug. 10]