Violence and Atonement in the Postindustrial Age: Minamata Patients, Hongan no Kai, and the Carving of Jizō Statues

Miyamoto, Yuki
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This paper explores patients’ responses to the Minamata disease, which resulted from the water’s contamination with methyl mercury, a substance released from the Chisso factory between 1937 and 1968. Methyl mercury is produced in the process of making plastic products and tends to accumulate in the brain, affecting the nervous system and often leading to death. First, I discuss Hongan no kai, a Minamata patients’ group, whose members carve bodhisattva statues out of stone and place them as tokens of atonement on land reclaimed in the city. This follows the account provided by this group’s leading figure, Ogata Masato. Then, I analyze Ogata’s religiosity as observed in his thoughts about “life-ism,” which he explains as, “reverence for, and a sense of humility toward, all life.... something larger than ourselves, a force before which we can only prostrate ourselves and pray” (Ogata Masato, Oiwa Keibo. Rowing the Eternal Sea, 164). While it is necessary to impute legal responsibility to the corporations that discharged hazardous substances into the environment, I also suggest that the ethical examination of environmental disasters should not be confined to the judicial process. I rather argue that we need to take into consideration the ways in which the patients deal with the disaster. Since their thoughts and actions provide insight into the form of violence done to their body, to the environment, and beyond, this appears to provide a more constructive path toward environmental justice.
Presented at the Numata Conference in Buddhist Studies / “Violence, Nonviolence, and Japanese Religions: Past, Present, and Future,” held in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 20–21, 2014
Minamata disease, methyl mercury pollution, Chisso Corporation, environmental issues, Japan, Kyūshū, Agamben, Ogata Masato, fishing communities, industrialization, bodhisattva Jizō, atonement, original sin
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