Kyoto Woman Works to Raise Awareness of Man-Made Environmental Disasters


KYOTO — Be it Japan’s Minamata disease or America’s Three Mile Island, Aileen Mioko Smith has devoted her career to confronting and exposing some of the major environmental disasters of this century.

She continues to do so as an antinuclear activist here, mobilizing people around both the very real dangers of nuclear power and the long-term alternatives of grassroots action.

“People know. It’s just that they don’t act” on such issues, said Smith. “There’s always that gap any place, but I think in Japan it’s particularly wide. ...People are one step away from action (and now) are ready on many issues to take that step.”

Smith’s most recent victory was helping to organize in a matter of weeks a petition signed by 12,472 Kyoto city and prefectural residents, urging that patchwork repairs be halted on Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama Unit 2 nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.

The plant lies within 10 km of Kyoto Prefecture on the Japan Sea coast.

The petition, spanning political and ideological differences, was recently presented to Kyoto Prefecture’s legislature. As a result, a resolution was approved, paving the way for unprecedented public debate with Kansai Electric and the national government on the issue.

“Stop the Monju” movement is another of Smith’s projects, as she and a handful of other activists work to halt construction of the Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor, which is about 60 km from Kyoto Prefecture and slated to open in 1992.

“We Kansai residents should be concerned about the nuclear plants on the Japan Sea side because they are our plants,” Smith, 40, said. “They’ve been built to send electricity to us here.”

The cluster of 12 nuclear power plants in this region — with three more under construction — is the highest concentration of such plants on the planet, according to Smith. “We are unique in the world that way, and hardly any of us knows it.”

Chances are high that any of these outdated power plants could become a Soviet-style Chernobyl accident in Japan, she said.

“My most horrible nightmare about the nuclear reactors on the Japan Sea is that Monju would blow up,” Smith said. “There is more plutonium in Monju than 2,500 Nagasaki bombs. It would mean the end of the world for us as we know it in this part of the world.”

“It’s one of these things beyond imagination. But it could actually happen,” she added. “All because some stupid government program couldn’t be stopped.”

Smith’s environmental activism has its roots in Japan from 1971 to 1974, when she and her former husband, the late W. Eugene Smith, lived among local residents of Minamata, a small port town in Kumamoto Prefecture that was being poisoned since at least 1956 by Chisso Corp.’s mercury waste.

The Smiths documented Minamata disease in a photographic book that brought an otherwise local issue to the outside world. An exhibition of those photos continues to be shown at the Liberty Osaka museum.

Recent court rulings to settle the Minamata victims’ lawsuits out of court is a “disgrace” to the hundreds of people who have died or remain incapacitated by Minamata disease, Smith said.

“The government’s way of trying to solve the problem is to wait for them all to die off,” she said. “The ‘enemy’ (government) has been successful in trying to split up the victims’ groups.”

After covering Minamata in the 1970s, Aileen Smith lived for a year at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, interviewing about 250 area residents whose lives were affected by the 1979 partial meltdown and subsequent radiation release from the nuclear plant there. She hopes to publish the interviews in the future.

Three Mile Island eventually led her to Kyoto, where she continues the fight.

Smith sees the biggest challenge for the 1990s as promoting Japan’s grassroots activism as a force to be reckoned with. One way is to promote at home and abroad what she calls “parochial” Japanese grassroots campaigns via the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, a human rights-oriented advertising agency.

“Right now you’ve got two different worlds: grassroots people and then a lot of people who are concerned but inactive. And they haven’t connected,” said Smith. “My hope and desire is to tap a wider sector of society, and concerned philanthropists, copywriters, designers and other professionals can help.”

“Our grassroots strategies (in Japan) have to get more loosened up, and (also professionals) need to step out of their own little world,” she said. “Moonlighting for grassroots is what we need.”