Takeshi Ishikawa: Revisiting Minamata

Words: Mark Edward Harris

Smith became interested in documenting Minamata after reading about what would later become known as “Minamata disease,” a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. For years, the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory in Minamata had released methyl-mercury through its industrial wastewater into Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, contaminating the local sea life. This in turn led to thousands of cases of mercury poisoning in the local populace who ingested the toxic food sources caught in their fishing nets. For more than three decades, the government and Chisso Corporation did little to prevent the pollution.

The stage was set for Smith to create his monumental work, with the players in this human tragedy facing severe physical deformities, mental traumas and untimely deaths. Nobody had a better seat to witness the legendary photographer at work than Takeshi Ishikawa.

Ishikawa recalls his first meeting with Smith: “It was early October, 1971. At the time I was living in the Harajuku district, which was like the Greenwich Village of Tokyo. I ran into Gene on the street by accident, recognizing him from his portrait displayed at his exhibition “Let Truth be the Prejudice” about 10 days earlier in Tokyo. As it turned out, Gene was also living in Harajuku. I was not sure it was him, so I approached him and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Eugene Smith?’ He replied, with a gentle smile, ‘Yes, I am Eugene Smith.’ I said, ‘I saw your exhibition and thought it was great,’ and was soon at a loss for words.

“But I was curious about him walking around the streets of Tokyo, as his exhibition had already finished, so I asked what he was doing there. He explained that he was living in Central Apartment, a well-known building in Harajuku where many photographers, designers and artists were living and working. He also told me he was leaving soon for Minamata to continue work on a photo story. He had just returned from there, having spent one week finding a place to stay. Then he asked, ‘What are you doing now?’ I explained I had just started freelancing as a commercial photographer. He replied, ‘Oh, you’re a photographer?’ and invited me up to his apartment.

“At his place he introduced me to Aileen, his newlywed wife. Their room was full of boxes, as they were preparing to relocate to Minamata. Aileen asked me to translate some Japanese texts about Minamata for them. They needed lots of help, so I visited daily for about a week assisting them with their move. At that time, there was no parcel shipping service, so everything had to be sent by rail transport, which I took care of. On the day of their departure, I went to Tokyo Station to see them off. I told them to call me if they needed assistance when they got back to Tokyo.”

A week later Ishikawa received a call from Aileen requesting assistance in building a darkroom in their Harajuku apartment bathroom. Once it was operational, the budding photographer began making contact sheets for Smith, often working until midnight. Soon it was time for Gene and Aileen to return to Minamata. This time, the Smiths were not going to leave Tokyo without their new assistant.

“As I was on the platform saying goodbye to them, Gene pulled me onto the train right when the doors were closing. I was in effect involuntarily drafted by Gene, and we took the 17-hour train ride to Minamata.”

For the first year in Minamata, the three of them shared a small house that belonged to one of the victim’s family. In 1972, Smith rented a second small house as a darkroom and home for his photo assistant. The Smiths kept the Harajuku apartment as a Tokyo base until the fall of 1972, since it was paid for by the promoter of the Japanese leg of the “Let Truth be the Prejudice” exhibition tour. They then rented another apartment in Tokyo, in the Oyama district of Itabashi Ward. Smith and Ishikawa created a small darkroom for printing whenever they were back in the capital. When the Smiths returned to the U.S., Ishikawa moved into the apartment for four years.

Ishikawa’s own photo history started after high school at Tokyo Senmon Gakuin, studying commercial photography from 1969 to 1971. Up until his time in Minamata he had never taken a frame of journalistic work. But that changed after witnessing Smith in action.

What was it about W. Eugene Smith that inspired the people of Minamata to allow the American photographer to work so intimately with them? Ishikawa explains: “First, Gene’s wife, Aileen, was half-Japanese and was a young, beautiful girl. Her being with an older Western man was of interest to the Japanese, so they were curious about him. Gene could not speak Japanese, but he always had a nice smile, and to the Japanese, he sort of reminded them of Colonel Sanders or Santa Claus.

“But most importantly, he was living in Minamata among the local community. His first plan was to live there only three or four months, but as he stayed on, he made many personal relationships, something that became very important to him. Also, there was a core group of Minamata sufferers represented by lawyers. They were also backed by activists who were pushing their cause and welcomed media attention.”

While the Minamata series might be Smith’s greatest photo essay, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” is perhaps his single greatest image. Tomoko’s mother, Ryoko, agreed to be photographed in a Japanese bath with her daughter to illustrate the human toll of Minamata disease on Tomoko’s body and mind.

“That photo was taken right around Christmas 1971,” explains Ishikawa. “We went to the Kamimura home and I was there for the entire shoot. But as this involved women bathing, I stayed out of the bath area because of privacy. Only Aileen and Gene were in the room—I waited outside. By the way, the family name has always been mistranslated as Uemura. That is incorrect; a mistake was made in translation during the book production. That photo is captioned ‘Tomoko Uemura,’ but her real name was Tomoko Kamimura. This is an easy mistake, as the kanji character for ‘kami’ and ‘ue’ are the same.

“After Gene made the photo, he was very excited. He said, ‘I got it! I got it!’ We developed the film the next day, but at that time we could not make contact sheets or prints in Minamata. So Gene did not see this image as a print until we returned to Tokyo in early January and soon after made contact sheets and proof prints. When Gene saw the photo, he felt that he had succeeded in his attempt to portray Tomoko and her mother.”

Life magazine featured the image as part of a major photo essay in its June 2, 1972 issue. Exposing the raw reality of Minamata disease to a world audience put significant pressure on the Japanese government to deal with the problem. But Smith paid a heavy personal price for his efforts to document the environmental and human catastrophe in Minamata. Ishikawa recalls the incident when thugs almost killed Smith:

“On January 7, 1972, Gene went to the Chisso factory in Goi City in Chiba Prefecture outside Tokyo to cover patients and activists demonstrating there. Other media was there as well. As the Chisso headquarters was in Tokyo, many patients were demonstrating, demanding to meet the company president. But Chisso execs would not [meet them], supposedly due to legal reasons, as the case was still tied up in the courts. So the activists protested outside the Goi factory.

“Chisso had tight security. That day in Goi, when the demonstrators and the media went inside the factory gates, Gene casually followed. That is when security attacked the group. To this day, we are not sure if the attackers were security guards, staff or hired thugs like the yakuza. Many companies in those days were concerned about left-wingers and unions, so they often used thugs for protection and security.

“Afterwards the police came, some charges were made, but it never went to trial. Gene’s attackers were never prosecuted. Gene was badly injured. However, no Japanese journalists there were hurt that day. Only Gene and a few activists were injured. It became big news the next day that a famous American journalist was badly hurt at the Chisso factory. The press called him a ‘victim.’ I was working in the darkroom the day of the incident.”

After the beating Smith’s dependency on his young assistant greatly increased. The elder photographer continued his work on the Minamata project until November 1974 in chronic pain. Smith and Ishikawa worked in the darkroom together for many months, preparing images for the book Minamata, published in 1975. An advance from publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, as well as Smith’s touring exhibit “Let Truth be the Prejudice,” an exhibition of the Minamata project in 1973 at the Seibu Department Store, magazine sales including the Life magazine feature, and Smith’s endorsement deal with Minolta cameras funded the lengthy project.

But the emotional and physical investment made by Smith to document Minamata might very well have contributed to his death in 1978 at the age of 59. Perhaps the greatest photo essayist of the 20th century had also become a Minamata victim. But his efforts were not in vain.

On March 20, 1973, with many victims in the courtroom, and the world watching in large measure because of Smith’s photographs, the Kumamoto Prefectural Court ruled in favor of the victims and the families in their complaint against the Chisso Corporation.

Reflecting upon his experience in Minamata, Ishikawa says, “I lived in Minamata for three years and was deeply touched by the experience—making many friends there and seeing the effects of Minamata disease. After five to 10 years, I did not talk about the Minamata experience anymore. It was too heavy for me to return to that time and place. Instead, I preferred to work on other stories. Also, I always thought of Minamata as Gene’s project and not mine. So I left it alone.”

But Smith had encouraged Ishikawa to photograph in Minamata, which at first made the young assistant uncomfortable. In Japan, it’s virtually unheard of for assistants to photograph the same subject matter as their employers. But Ishikawa did obey the gentle commands of his boss, and the resulting images were carefully stored away at the conclusion of the project. Ishikawa went on to a successful photography career which includes long-term projects on the Ganges River pilgrimages and on India’s transgender Hijra society. But he kept in the back of his mind a determination to one day return to Minamata. The impetus came in 2008.

“I was invited to a ceremony for Gene at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art on the 30th anniversary of his death, which was on October 15, 1978. This museum has a large collection of his work, and Aileen was also there, as she lives in Kyoto. At that time, many people attended the ceremony from all over Japan, but most did not know about Gene. I had a sad feeling. It made me feel his work and memory were fading away. Many of his Japanese friends were too old or ill to attend.

“I felt I had to show his and my experience about Minamata as much as I could. I did not want his memory or this important body of work to be forgotten. So in 2008 I went back to Minamata and met up with old friends. Many were still suffering from Minamata disease and I re-photographed them, as well as other victims. This resulted in my book, Minamata Note 1971-2012: W. Eugene Smith, Myself and Minamata (Chikura Shobo, Tokyo).

“Over 60,000 people in Minamata still need medical attention, but the Japanese bureaucracy is reacting slowly to help them. In 2013 the Chisso Corporation reorganized into a new company now called the JNC Corporation (Japan New Chisso Corporation). As a new company, they are no longer liable for the wrongdoings of the previous company. So most funding for patient care now comes from taxpayers, and the government is reacting slowly to that. They are just waiting for these patients to die off. I continue to go back there.”

One victim Ishikawa could not photograph was Tomoko, the subject of Smith’s most famous image from Minamata. In 1977, at the age of 21, the disease had ended this young girl’s life before she had the chance to live it.

“As for Minamata, the bay where many of the toxins settled has been filled in and is now called Minamata Eco (Ecology) Park,” Ishikawa says. “Chisso still has a chemical factory there, but mercury is no longer used and they are following environmental guidelines. As for the dangers of mercury poisoning and other toxins, the waters around Minamata are now safe and commercial fishing has returned. But if a strong earthquake were to hit the region, I fear the chemicals underneath Eco Park could once again leak into local waters. This whole situation is very similar to what is happening in Fukushima now.”

Ishikawa stays in touch with Aileen Smith, who has been active with anti-nuclear issues, well before the Fukushima disaster in 2011, heading up the Green Action Network (www.greenaction-japan.org). Ishikawa and Aileen are among the thousands of people touched by Minamata who are trying their best to see that history does not repeat itself.

Fact File
The Sakura-do Gallery in Tokyo, Japan (sakura-do.com) exclusively offers original prints by Takeshi Ishikawa and vintage prints by W. Eugene Smith from Ishikawa’s Smith Archive. Ishikawa’s photographs: 11 × 14 prints in editions of 25 for $1,500, and 16 × 20 prints in editions of 10 for $3,000. Both editions have three artist’s proofs. Ishikawa Smith Archive: This consists of many of Smith’s original prints Ishikawa received from working with him, which have until now been unavailable to the public. These are vintage prints made by Smith in Minamata in the early 1970s, as well as gallery-grade prints by Smith of some of his most iconic images. The latter were printed in the 1950s and 1960s and come with certificates signed by Ishikawa.

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1974 Minamata, Japan: W. Eugene Smith getting some sleep while editing his prints.