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The sky has started to colour

November 14, 2020

 
1964, Minamata, Kumamoto, Japan


Bells on a door somewhere were chiming. Worker were departing home. Voices and laughter travelled with the sea breeze. Young fishermen were going home to their wives, cheery of the prospects of fishing again. A group of students sneaked past the telephone operator office to look at the fashionably daring operator-girls in chequered miniskirts and yellow capris.  All against the backdrop of the factory, thought Fumiko. She too was walking home from a day’s work, with the setting sun and dim street lights casting her shadow on the pavement. They heard things, the operator-girls, things that people didn’t talk about. She knew about the mothers whose children still died in that terrible disease and about the fishermen who’d lost their income and still had to eat the poisonous fish and then fell ill too. And she knew about the families who didn’t get compensation because their symptoms weren’t right. Just this morning Fumiko had transferred a call from Nagata-sama to her brother in Kumamoto; her husband couldn’t fish anymore and her son was dead. Of course Fumiko hadn’t listened in – although some of the younger girls would say she should’ve, while flipping through their ‘Young Woman’ magazines – but Nagata-sama’s husband had been part of a crew out of which five families had confirmed cases of disease – despite the start of the wastewater treatment system. People praised the factory’s treatment plan, how good it was that nobody else would get ill, and that there would be no more poisoned fish, and how righteous they had been to accept the demands of those “angry fishermen’s cooperatives”. But they didn’t have much to say at all about Nagata-sama’s fishing crew. And she had seen how the women in the market turned away from Nagata-sama, how the sellers would be carefully not to touch even the hems of her kimono when handing over vegetables. Fumiko sighed as she crossed the narrow street, it was not right. Whatever the factory managers and employees were saying – whatever her father was saying – something was not right. Hiroshi had told her about researches in the medicine department at Kumedai who were still worried about – nay, intrigued by – the Bay. Why would they mumble about it if there wasn’t something undecided with the symptoms? She couldn’t help but sigh again, here she was entering her home, a home clean of disease, a home with plenty, when Nagata-sama and many more struggled to make ends meet. Fumiko tried letting it go when she placed her shoes in the cupboard, when she laid the table and served the rice, but really, she could think of nothing else.
 
She looked at her father over the dining table. The bottom corner of his newspaper was damp, it had soaked in his miso soup. She knew well what he thought about all of it. Chisso payed his wages, his neighbour’s wages and their neighbour’s wages. Chisso was the most advanced factory in Japan. Chisso was necessary for Minamata. If she had not met a student-doctor he would have found Fumiko a young Chisso coworker that could provide well for her. He would work all his life at Chisso. He should think what he thought.
 
The cicadas were unusually loud, the tatami mat oddly stiff, Fumiko couldn’t sleep. She gazed out into the darkness of the room. Her mother and father slept deeply by her side. What if it was she who was struck by numbness, what if her legs and arms stopped doing what she wanted them to do? What if she lay sleepless, paralysed, in fear? It was not fair.
 
She rubbed at the light surface of the cardigan button, it had a tiny stain on it - maybe it had always been there. The sunlight glittered on the ground where they walked, it had rained. The bells were chiming again. Yamako-san handed her father the day’s newspaper by the post office, it smelled strongly of printer ink. They turned right and approached the crossroad. They should take left and he would continue all the way down to Chisso. He looked puzzled when she stopped and handed him his lunch box. She imagined his face as she walked on ahead – was there disbelief, displeasure, disappointment? It would have to be so then. Fumiko would no longer sit and listen. Fumiko would raise her voice with the families demanding justice, the mothers and fathers condemning Chisso outside their gates. They too were part of Minamata. That was right.

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