I Was the Emperor of Japan

by Steve Balogh

Steve received an Invitation Fellowship from the Japanese government to work on mercury analysis methods with colleagues at the National Institute for Minamata Disease in March and April 2007. The author admits he is “not actually the emperor of anything.” — Ed.

I was the emperor of Japan. Well, I was for a little while, only two months, really. And my realm didn’t actually include all of Japan, only a small part, a mountain, really, or maybe just the top of that mountain. But I was the emperor of my mountaintop in Japan, and people bowed to me, and it was grand being emperor of Japan, even for just two months.

My mountain kingdom was in Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, from where, the ancient story tells us, the Japanese people originated. From my mountain vantage point, I looked out over the vast blue Shiranui Sea, a beautiful, fairy tale water, but a sea of sorrows, really. Each morning, I watched my people in their fishing boats bobbing along the coast or out across the sea, toward Goshonoura, an island where dinosaurs once roamed. And at night, they were often still there, the boats with their lights, and my people, with strong hands and backs, working to make a living off the sea. Sometimes the sea was calm and it looked like glass stretching all the way to Goshonoura; but at other times, it was angry, and a nasty wind lashed the boats with rain, and tossed them up and down, up and down, over foaming hills of water. I looked out from my balcony each day, taking it all in. Above me there, and sometimes below me off the cliffs, sea eagles floated and screamed.

On my mountaintop, I lived in a castle, well, not really a castle, more like a research institute, but it felt like a castle. Naturally, I had guards to protect me around the clock, but I’m not really sure what I was being protected from. High up in this cedar and bamboo forest, I heard and saw birds all around, and I heard frogs, their deep bass voices bouncing off the side of the mountain. I’m sure there were other things up there, too, but I’m not sure what they were, because I never saw them, but I felt them sometimes, or I felt their eyes, anyway, watching me, waiting for me to pass, before resuming their activities. I looked and looked and tried to see them through the dense woods, knowing they were there, but they might as well have been invisible, and maybe they actually were, because spirits are like that, and I think there are a lot of spirits up on my mountain, some of them restless.

Steve and Colleagues in Minamata

I was the emperor of Japan, but actually my day-job was as a research scientist, and my castle was actually the National Institute for Minamata Disease, but it really was high on the mountaintop, among cedar and bamboo, overlooking the Shiranui Sea. I lived there, mostly alone, except for my guards, who always bowed to me as I went in or out in my carriage, which was actually a bicycle, but a bicycle with an electric motor and a battery that gave a boost with each push of the pedal, so that it made me feel all-powerful, like a king, or kind of extra-strong, anyway. And I could ride my bike all over that mountaintop and never see anybody, except maybe my guards, but I knew that my people were watching out for me, making sure I was okay, because that’s how my people are. I had everything I needed up there, and I felt like a king, kind of isolated, like kings are, but happy, way up high, in a mountain forest filled with spirits.

I wasn’t actually alone during work hours, of course, when my research colleagues ventured up the mountain, and joined me in the pursuit of…; well, of what? Our prey then was quicksilver, the heavy, silvery liquid treasured by alchemists for hundreds of years, known for its strange and profound medicinal properties, but suspected and feared as well for its dark side, as a terrible monster that could bring debilitation and insanity to the unwary or unknowing. It was this monster that lurked then in the sea below my mountain kingdom, that rose up and brought hell on earth to the people of Minamata, my people, who worked in their boats, day and night, up and down; and even to my people in Goshonoura, 20 kilometers away, shrouded often in mist or haze, but sometimes shining bright like a gem, out there, floating. This quicksilver, mercury, really, a poison, spread throughout this vast, beautiful sea, contaminating and destroying sea animals of every kind, along with their predators, my sea eagles, and, yes, my people, too.

A chemical factory discharge, over years and years, poured mercury compounds into the sea here, directly into my people’s breadbasket, but my people, they didn’t know, they couldn’t know what was happening, even when the cats went crazy, chasing their tails until they fell into the sea and drowned, and when the birds fell like rocks from the sky. They didn’t know what was happening when they started feeling numbness in their fingers, then up their arms, then started having trouble pronouncing their words correctly, and stumbling when they walked. And what to think when the light started playing tricks with their eyes, and everything started to look as if seen through a tunnel, black all around, just some light in the middle, until fading completely to black. How could they understand when suddenly they couldn’t catch a word here or a phrase there, then a sentence, then anything at all, all of it just a muffled blur of noise? And the fear of it all: what is happening to me, why do I feel this way, can somebody please stop these noises in my head, this pain, this terrible, relentless pain in my body? Finally, in hospital, strapped down to keep from flying off the bed, convulsing, thrusting, howling, screaming, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, their loved ones watching, wondering, fearing, praying for an end to it, please, just end it, now, it’s too much. And maybe the worst: babies born, twisted and misshapen, blind, deaf, unresponsive, but alive, somehow alive.

The eyes of the neighbors, they saw everything, and they were afraid: stay away from them, they have the strange disease, don’t go near their house, you’ll catch it too. And the authorities, with their disinfectants and their masks, scrubbing down the houses and lanes, trying to catch something, they didn’t know what. Doctors and scientists came and went, more data, no answers.

Until finally they put the puzzle together, and saw the connection, and realized what had happened. But too late then for the many thousands of my people who had perished already, or who lay convulsing or howling all day, or who couldn’t hold their chopsticks anymore, or walk without falling, or drive their boats, or fix their nets. They had lived off the sea, this beautiful Shiranui Sea for hundreds of years, my people, and the sea had provided well, and life was hard but good. But now, the sea was a monster, a poison soup, and life could never be the same.

The “strange disease” became known as Minamata Disease, named after this pretty little fishing hamlet, but it is mercury poisoning, actually, that affected my people here. It split and shattered the community, the victims and the fisher folk set against the town and company folk. The government didn’t help much, and the chemical company denied everything. For years, decades really, the battle went on, and activists took the fight all the way to Tokyo. The victims got little in the way of compensation, however, and the company goes on operating today, although their discharges are monitored closely. For the victims: hospitals and rehabilitation centers, treatment and care, but how to really repay them? It’s not possible; there can be no justice here, only sorrow.

I was emperor of Japan for two months on a mountaintop overlooking a beautiful, terrible sea, where eagles soar again, where fishing boats again cast their nets, where a community recovers now, 50 years after a tragic disaster almost crushed it. Much of Minamata Bay has been dredged and the most highly contaminated part was isolated, filled with soil and dredgings, and capped. It’s a park, now, with a bamboo forest, and ball fields, and a playground, where the little children play, on top of a sleeping monster.

I was emperor of Japan and these are my people. Now I bow to them.

Steve Balogh is a Research Scientist with the Environmental Services Division of the Metropolitan Council in St. Paul, Minnesota.

See all articles by Steve Balogh