Lights in Terraced Rice Paddy Field--Minamata, Japan

Have you ever heard the story about Minamata City, Japan? It is located in Kyushu, the western part of Japan, with a population of 30,000.  Minamata City faces the ocean and is surrounded by mountains. The weather is moderate.

Minamata has become famous for "Minamata disease," which is mercury poisoning. From the 1950s to 60s, environmental pollution caused diseases all over Japan. Minamata was no exception. Factories released liquid waster material containing organic mercury into the sea. People who ate fish from that area suffered from mercury poisoning. Over 2,200 people are certified by the government
as suffering from this disease. Unfortunately, many more people are suffering but not yet certified. People have not forgotten the incident at Minamata over these past 50 years.

In the past, Minamata City has been haunted by the reputation of being a "town of pollution-causing diseases." However, Minamata City is currently creating a new image as a "City of Environment," an environmentally-conscious city. The city is putting forth a lot of effort on the separation of collected household waste, recycling, and producing safe agricultural produce under the "Minamata" brand.

Minamata's water source, the Minamata River, is managed by citizens of the district with the Minamata Kugino Furusato Center Airinkan playing a central role. This facility is run by Minamata city, and offers a variety of services to help citizens revitalize their hometown. Conservation of forests surrounding the river and the restoration of abandoned terraced rice paddy fields are among its priorities.

On May 19, 2007, an event was held titled, "Lights in terraced rice paddy field." It was the third event organized by Airinkan and citizens of the district. They made about 1,300 torches from bamboo and straw and used bio-diesels made from waste cooking oil. Citizens put torches along the paths. Small lights were lit on the road to prevent people from falling onto the field since it was so dark with only a crescent moon lighting the sky.  Mr. Sawahata, director of Airinkan, said, "Flickering flames of torches, shadow of the sky and mountains reflecting on the surface of the paddy fields--the scenery was so beautiful."

The lit torches sent a signal to the ancestors who created and protected the terraced rice paddy fields. "People made a bonfire to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors during a Buddhist festival. If we light torches around the paddy fields, the spirits of ancestors may know their fields are being well preserved," Mr. Samukawa, a resident of the district said.

Volunteers across Kyushu, not only Minamata City, gathered for several days to prepare for the event.

Minamata, once known as "the city of the pollution disease" is now presenting new attractive features, thanks to many people's efforts.

(Yuko Kishikami)

June 20, 2007