HIGHLIGHTS

  • Ishimure’s penetrating portrayals of fisher folks’ lives and agonizing illnesses within the context of a stratified society were first published in a small literary magazine in Kumamoto, Kyushu.
  • In 1968, her collection of poetic essays about toxic waste pollution, Kukai Jodo Waga Minamata (Pure Land Poisoned Sea) commanded national response.
  • Ostracized by unaffected residents whose living depended upon the polluting company, and over protestations even of relatives, Ishimure persisted and published her collection of essays, Waga Shimin Minamata-byo Toso (Minamata Disease My Dead People), in 1972
  • The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “her as the ‘voice of her people’ in their struggle against the industrial pollution that has been distorting and destroying their lives.”

 CITATION

A shy, frail housewife and aspiring poet, MICHIKO ISHIMURE became a determined documentaries when “businessmen with no conscience” allowed toxic waste to pollute her community. Arousing the public will, she demonstrated how exacting search for fact could overcome bureaucratic inertia and hostile industrial interests.

Minamata was a naturally beautiful but poor fishing and farming center when one of Japan’s pioneer chemical companies established itself there in 1908. Growing into a great chemical complex before, and especially after, World War II, the company became the principal employer and dominant influence in local politics and government.

Official non-interest attended a puzzling “cat’s dance disease” that spread through Minamata nearly a quarter century ago, causing frenzied cats to die or drown themselves. Nor did officials show concern when people, especially fisher folk, were afflicted with a crippling and disfiguring disease that also was often convulsive and fatal. An exception was the late Dr. Hajime Hosokawa of the chemical company’s hospital, who, in 1957, enlisted research assistance from Kumamoto University Medical School. Their finding that the “mysterious disease” was a central nervous system disorder resulting from eating fish contaminated by mercury waste discharged into Minamata Bay was suppressed, though the City Hospital had to build special wards to accommodate the patients.

Impelled by her Buddhist upbringing to act against callous harm to life, Mrs. ISHIMURE quietly sought out the stricken. Her penetrating portrayals of their lives and agonizing illnesses within the context of a stratified society were first published in a small literary magazine in Kumamoto, Kyushu. When assembled into a book, Kukai Jodo Waga Minamata (Pure Land Poisoned Sea) in 1968, these poetic essays commanded national response.

The resistance of local and national authorities and the chemical industry was stubborn. Ostracized by unaffected residents whose living depended upon the polluting company, and over protestations even of relatives, Mrs. ISHIMURE persisted. A collection of essays by her and others, Waga Shimin Minamata-byo Toso (Minamata Disease My Dead People), was published in 1972. A second book, a compilation of her own perceptive writings previously carried in leading magazines and newspapers, Rumin no Miyako (City of Drifters), was in its third printing within a month after publication in March 1973.

As scientists, publicists and committees of concerned citizens have gained hearing in Tokyo, the Health and Welfare Ministry belatedly has acted. Though the chemical industry has begun corrective measures, the battle still is not won. As Mrs. ISHIMURE chronicles it, the Minamata tragedy is only a part of the ongoing struggle between the simple innocence of fishermen and farmers and the tyranny of mass industrialization that threatens to dehumanize society.

In electing MICHIKO ISHIMURE to receive the 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of Trustees recognizes her as the “voice of her people” in their struggle against the industrial pollution that has been distorting and destroying their lives.

 RESPONSE

The anniversary of the surrender of Bataan makes it impossible for me to express my appreciation without honestly falling headlong into complex feelings of anguish, because as a human being of that country whose soldiers perpetrated that surrender in your land, I am to receive your most noble and humane national prize, the Magsaysay Award.

The setting sun over Manila Bay, the beauty of which is praised throughout the world as exquisite, sets also into my soul as if bathed in human blood. In like manner, the setting sun over Manila Bay reminds me of the beauty of the sun setting over my own Minamata Sea.

This same sunset has twilight the funeral march of my people on the seaside hills, and yet, while these dead were still among the living, this solar twilight cascaded over the canvas sails of their boats as if over so many flower petals being guided smoothly over the water on their way. And the shimmering sunlight presided over the wind romping across the sea beckoning to the many schools of swimming fish.

In the ancient and primitive religions of my country, the abundant light of the sun brought life to this world, and was worshipped as the goddess of affection and peace. Among other gods were those who misbehaved and brought disaster to people, causing the sun goddess to hide herself because of her overwhelming sadness; this left the people in fearful darkness pleading for the return of their goddess through prayer and self-restraint. This original mythology developed into a most simple but powerful morality for my people. Even today, when scientific civilization has become the object of faith, there is no doubt that the sun still remains the ultimate lord of life.

With this kind of faith already in existence, then, the national modernization of my country brought drastic modifications so that the hearts and minds of my people became alienated. Thus, in the last world war this warped faith was used as a slogan for the invasion of other countries. In spite of this, like people in your own country who have not yet been destroyed by the evils of civilization, so in my Minamata, there are people who cannot live without love for the life of others.

It is these kinds of people who have been attacked by organic and inorganic mercury and other industry-related heavy metal poisons so that, not only has their existence and life lost its physical viability through the accumulation of death-dealing quantities of poison metals, but also the aim of this intrusion has been the sneering and insulting execution of the unique, beautiful and delicate ethics yet remaining in my homeland.

This intruder came dressed in the garb of area industrial development and economic growth and he appeared before humble and simple people using a silky coaxing voice like that of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.”

While modern chemical industry was secretly depositing poisons, some of my own people died a sudden and anguishing death, and through 10 and 20 year periods, parents, children and then grandchildren were more slowly murdered. However, these people, caught in an unprecedented disaster, saw through those who sought to destroy them with the penetrating sight of unseeing eyes at death.

Over a long period of time, the people who remained were filled with the will of those who had, in such a manner, died, just as the people in your country had begun in a moment to observe in their hearts the Bataan surrender anniversary.

In the classic writings of my culture there is a saying which goes: “The bird’s most beautiful song comes at the moment of death.” At the end of one’s destiny, life, in and of itself, has a dignity and beauty which, even though denied, is not unappealing.

The final voice of that given destiny, after being murdered by a giant even more inhumane than “The Merchant of Venice,” does not stop offering, to those who are left, a deep revelation.

Many of my friends, infinitely more so than myself, have gone through a powerful resurrection of the soul through this death watch, and stand thus together with those who are suffering in order to create many practical and bold action groups. And these persons, expecting no return, humbly and with silent persistence pursue the kind of work that others would not do. My humble literary offerings have been enlightened by these people who act, not with words, but with deeds.

Modern industrial society proceeds in the direction of defacing the most delicate and deep receptivity of the human spirit. For example, when comparing the magnificent and mysterious structures yet remaining in the hinterlands of Southeast Asia, with the buildings in the modern cities of my own country, it can be seen that modern structures are only piles of concrete void of any personality.

My humble desire has been only to bring to life and make sound again this basic and rich receptivity that yet undoubtedly is retained within women and men. Originally, the subject of poetry was the grandeur of nature and I tried to tune my bowstring for a world of people whose souls interacted with the grandeur of nature. However, my bowstring didn’t vibrate, and listening to the wee small voice of my heart, I know now why: the song of those in death was more beautiful than the song sung by the living. Only a small part of this has been put into words.

I have heard that Japanese enterprises have begun their invasion of this country but I pray from the bottom of my heart that your land will never be inflicted with a disaster like that in Minamata.

I ask only that I be allowed to use this Award money for the sake of those still left alive. I offer my deepest thanks.

 BIOGRAPHY

MICHIKO ISHIMURE was born on March 11, 1927 in Kumamoto Prefecture on Amakusa Island off the West Coast of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan. When she was three months old her parents, Kametaro and Haruno Shiraishi, moved to Minamata, a small village of Kyushu on the Bay of Minamata, where her father continued his trade of stonecutter. The eldest in the family of three brothers and one sister, MICHIKO grew up in the “low strata of a community, which was formed in the process of a village’s transformation to a town.” She maintained “a brilliant record” in the local primary vocational training school and graduated at 16. Since this was 1943—in the middle of World War II and the military machine absorbed Japanese manpower—she was given an immediate position as substitute teacher in a primary school in town. She resigned in 1947 to marry Hiroshi Ishimure, a war veteran doing day labor until he became teacher at Minamata High School. One reason for leaving teaching she has said was that she “felt ashamed” of the role she had played as a teacher in promoting the wartime propaganda that demanded “100 million commit suicide fighting the enemy.”

For the next few years, MlCHlKO ISHIMURE took an occasional minor job, but spent most of her time in traditional housewifely activities, growing rice for the family and in raising their only child, a son Michio born on October 5, 1948, who is now a graduate in Physical Education from Nagoya University.

Shy and frail and feeling herself of a lowly origin, Mrs. ISHIMURE nevertheless had a burning ambition to become a writer and poet. In the early 1950s, she felt keenly the disappearance of traditional community life and she identified with the villagers who confided in her their fears as sons left the farms for the cities to try to earn a living. In seeking to find others with her interests and concerns, she came into touch with study groups of the local labor union and the Japanese Communist Party. She began to feel, as many other “intellectuals” of that period, that communism equated with freedom and self-expression. However, joining the “Circle Village,” a literary movement begun by one of Minamata’s most talented poets and leading Communists, she soon learned that the party had no time for personal causes. When she began to publicize the plight of the victims of Minamata Disease and criticized the party for its stand against her activities, she was investigated, accused of being a Trotskyite, and informed that she was allowed to write only for the party organ. She quit, “with an abiding distrust of organizations which are over centralized, bureaucratic and do not give their chapters freedom.” Her distrust is reflected in the loose organization of the movement to fight Minamata Disease.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)