Photographer, teacher and mother, Aileen Smith collaborated with Eugene Smith on the book Minamata (1975), about the first two decades of Japan’s largest pollution incident. With Nakao Hajime she is preparing a book on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

I came to Kyoto 12 years ago. At first I hated it. It wasn’t my town, and I felt what a lot of people say about Kyoto: The people weren’t warm. Now I feel they are my great sparring partner. This is where I want to work. I was born in Tokyo, but I am glad to be living here now.

The activism in Kyoto is good because it’s persistent. Like other places in Japan, however, we aren’t going to make headway just by being diligent. I think movement people here are very parochial. They aren’t interested in what strategies people are using elsewhere, especially abroad. It’s important to focus in on local issues. Much better than having some vague notion of saving the world. But I think the old saying applies here: Think globally, act locally.

Good things can happen in Tokyo, but it’s so big it’s unwieldy. It’s hard to get the town “turned around.” Kyoto’s an ideal size. This fall, I was involved in a petition about nuclear safety sent to Kyoto Prefecture and Kyoto City. For a while, I kind of lived at the prefectural legislature and to a lesser extent at city hall. I still don’t know that much about how city hall works here, but the legislature is so sleepy that even you, a citizen, can feel, “Hey, I can do something!” There’s so much potential for turning the town around, to be a leader in initiating environmental change. Kyoto has its commitment about being a historical city, a center for culture. If the environment issue catches on here — if people see the connection to it and history and culture — I think a lot of change can be initiated.

We Kansai residents should be concerned about the nuclear reactors on Wakasa Bay because they
our plants; they’ve been built to send electricity to us here. Also, it’s the highest concentration of nuclear power plants in the world: 15. We are the closest metropolitan area to it. We are unique in the world that way, and hardly any of us knows it. Our source of drinking water, Lake Biwa, is just 15 kilometers from it all. (And probably at this given moment, about 70% of our bodies consists of Lake Biwa water!)

My most horrible nightmare about the nuclear reactors on the Japan Sea is that
Monju would blow up. There is more plutonium in Monju than in 2,500 Nagasaki-type bombs. Plutonium is the most toxic substance known to man. It would mean the end of this part of the world — Japan, Korea, the eastern half of China, the Soviet Far East, the Pacific and probably the Philippines and Southeast Asia, depending on how the wind blows. The California coast, and actually the whole region facing the Pacific, would also be heavily contaminated. It’s one of those things beyond imagination, but it could actually happen. All because some stupid government program couldn’t be stopped. (Stop the Monju office: 075-701-7223)

The situation of the Minamata victims is terrible. The government’s way of trying to solve the problem is to wait for them to all die off. Thousands of victims have applied to the government to be recognized as victims, but are turned down. It’s been over 34 years since Minamata Disease was officially recognized, but there has as yet been no health survey of the 200,000 people who were eating the contaminated fish. There are not even any social welfare programs for victims that have been officially certified as having Minamata Disease.

Currently the Japanese government is planning a big festival to be held on the landfill created from filling in the most polluted part of Minamata Bay. The theme of the festival: Minamata Disease is over…Japan has learned its lesson…Japan is really concerned about the environment. That’s about as hypocritical as you can get when all around this landfill are victims that haven’t even been compensated.

One thing that urgently needs to be done is to put international pressure on the Japanese government to take care of its own nationals. This doesn’t have to take the form of typical Japan bashing. It can be a joint statement of Minamata victims, people in Japan and concerned people around the world. It should be a statement saying, “Japan is repeating the same thing in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. We don’t want this to happen.”

I think our children will be mad as hell at us because we are leaving them an unsustainable civilization, and along with it all the garbage we have created to live this so-called “high life.” My daughter is six now. The next few years I have to give her a map of what the real current situation is in this world, how this civilization is operating, and paint her a picture about what it’s going to be like when she grows up. I feel I must warn her that life is going to be entirely different than all this “prosperity” she sees around her. We need to give our children the tools to work so they can save themselves.