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Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease

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BY ISHIMURE MICHIKO

TRANSLATED BY LIVIA MONNET

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, CENTER FOR JAPANESE STUDIES, 2003

379 PAGES, ISBN 978-1929280254, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Jason R. Harshman

The study of Japanese environmental literature must begin with the work of author and reluctant activist Ishimure Michiko. This name may be unknown—and underappreciated—by many in the West due to a limited and delayed translation of Ishimure’s work outside of Japan and her unconventional approach to nonfiction writing. Ishimure first gained recognition in Japan for her determination to raise awareness regarding the onset of Minamata disease. Minamata disease is a neurological disorder that was caused by methyl-mercury poisoning of water and shellfish due to industrial pollution during the 1950s. Ishimure published “Sea of Camellias” in 1969, and in 1972 it became the first chapter of her masterpiece, Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease. This immediate best-seller received the Kumamoto Nichinichi Cultural Prize in 1969, among other awards, for its lyrical quality and exposure of such a serious topic. Parts two and three—The Shiranui Fisherman and What Yuki Had to Say—were published in serial form between 1970 to 1971 and 1972 to 1973 respectively, but the collection of these works was not published in English until 1990.

This immediate best-seller received the Kumamoto Nichinichi Cultural Prize in 1969, among other awards, for its lyrical quality and exposure of such a serious topic.

Ishimure creates a vivid picture of what life was like for villagers dealing with the political, economic, and neurological consequences of unknowingly consuming methyl-mercury during the 1950s and 60s, by integrating oral histories gathered through personal experiences as a resident of Minamata, government documents, medical reports, and newspaper reports, with various literary techniques and styles such as stream of consciousness and flashbacks.

The author challenges readers to accept that, because we possess a shared dependency on the same water and land, we must also accept that we are mutually responsible for the abuse the Earth has endured when she opines

In our modern world of progress and civilization we have long forgotten what it means to live in keeping with the laws of nature; we have become deaf and blind to the vibrant soul of all things surrounding us. (236)

Among the issues explored in Paradise are the opportunity costs residents of Minamata would have to endure if the Chisso factory, the source of the pollution, were to be shut down. Throughout the book, Ishimure addresses paradoxes with which she and her neighbors struggled and humanity has encountered since the start of mass industrialization—life and death, nature and technology, tradition and modernity. In chapter five,“Fish on Land,” Ishimure recounts disputes between the local government and village residents over the need to increase the clean water supply, whether a villager’s standard of living was to blame for their incurring the disease, and whether compensation should be paid to the afflicted. Parallels between the hardships encountered by Japanese fishermen who told Ishimure of “large, oily-looking patches of an unknown stuff, shining black, red, and blue” will call to mind the economic, ecological, and cultural disruption caused recently by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Shell Oil Company in Nigeria, and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.

Not only does this work suggest that our spirit remains after death, but the point that our physical impact—our carbon footprint—lasts long beyond our time on earth, blends Japanese beliefs with the physical elements of environmental studies and preservation.

Ishimure also explores the philosophical and spiritual relationship between humanity and nature and interjects tenets of Daoism and Shintoism. By also incorporating themes of reincarnation, Ishimure reminds us

There is a living spirit in every tree, in every weed, in every blade of grass. Fish and earthworms, all living beings are endowed with a soul which stays behind and enters new life when they die. (260)

Not only does this work suggest that our spirit remains after death, but the point that our physical impact—our carbon footprint—lasts long beyond our time on earth, blends Japanese beliefs with the physical elements of environmental studies and preservation.

Ishimure’s Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow deserves a place among pioneering works of American environmental literature such as Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951) and Silent Spring (1962), and it can provide secondary and college level instructors with a broad, yet poignant, basis on which to base an in-depth study of environmental issues, medicine, ecology, economics, law, Japanese culture and history, technology, women’s studies, comparative literature, and literary criticism. Including Paradise in a comparative and interdisciplinary study of environmental challenges will provide students with an opportunity to develop an appreciation for how peoples and cultures around the world relate to their surroundings and our shared role as stewards of the Earth.

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