Aileen Mioko Smith

Aileen Mioko Smith was born to an American father and a Japanese mother. In 1970, while still a student at Stanford University, she put her bilingual skills to good use by working as an interpreter for a TV crew making a commercial for Fuji film. During the filming she would meet someone who would change the course of her life.

W. Eugene Smith was already regarded as one of the leading photojournalists of the time—a reputation that had been established by his World War II photographs for Newsweek and Life magazine. After the war, his photo-essays such as Nurse Midwife, Country Doctor and Spanish Village helped develop that genre into an art form. Smith was a driven man, prepared to sacrifice his own safety to capture images that invariably showed the victims of poverty, social injustice or war.

Despite the age difference between the two – he was in his fifties, she was twenty – they married soon after meeting and went on to work together on what would be Eugene Smith’s final project: Minamata.

The disease takes its name from the town in Kyushu where mercury was being dumped into the bay. At the time, mercury was an ingredient in the manufacturing process of acetaldehyde, which the Chisso Corporation was using to make plastic. Although this process began as early as 1932, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that people began to realize that something was wrong. The first sign came when local cats who fed on the fish from the bay began having seizures. Symptoms then began to appear in people living in and around Minamata who also ate fish and seafood from the bay. The symptoms included numbness, muscle-wasting, sight loss, fits, paralysis, deformity, insanity and, in many cases, death.

Despite Chisso’s denials, in 1956 research carried out by Kumamoto University concluded that ‘heavy metal’ poisoning caused the disease and the finger was firmly pointed in the company’s direction. The continued increase in reported incidents of the sickness triggered conflict within the town. As the number of victims grew, the town became increasingly divided between those who supported the victims and those loyal to Chisso, which controlled the livelihoods of many in and around Minamata.

Rather than stop dumping its waste into the water, the company simply shifted location and the waste was then put into Minamata River, leading to the Shiranui Sea. Unsurprisingly, it was not long before people along the coast of the Shiranui Sea began showing symptoms similar to those in Minamata.

Meanwhile, the company, aided by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which helped fund research into finding alternative causes of the disease, did everything to keep its factory open. Even when the company’s own researcher found evidence directly linking mercury from the Chisso plant to the disease, the results were hidden. It wasn’t until more than a decade later, in 1968, and just a few months after production of acetaldehyde had stopped, that the government finally issued a statement officially naming the cause of the disease as methyl mercury from the Chisso plant.

For the victims, the battle was far from over. From then on, it would become a struggle to prove their ailments were linked to the poisoning and to receive compensation. Chisso would fight just as hard as it had done to deny its responsibility in the first place. This was the environment in which the newly married Eugene and Aileen Mioko Smith found themselves. Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a photographic record that would take the story of Minamata outside Japan, as well as serve as a lasting testament to victims of industrial pollution around the world.

Aileen Mioko Smith now lives in Kyoto, where she is Executive Director of the environmental group Green Action. I talked to her about her time with Eugene Smith in Minamata, and the legacy of that tragedy.

IP. First of all, I’d like to ask why you and Eugene Smith decided to go to Minamata. Was this because of your Japanese connection?
AMS. It wasn’t specifically about my Japanese connection. Gene had had two previous contacts with Japan. The first was World War II. He was involved in photographing thirteen different invasions with the allied forces, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where he was injured. He saw how civilians in these islands had been hurt and killed in the war – he even saw people committing suicide by jumping off a cliff. At the time, he was a young man of 25 or 26, so he felt a real connection with the people on those islands, which he considered Japan. And then in 1960 he went and photographed Hitachi.
A person who was involved in Minamata with the movement in support of patients, Motomura Kazuhiko, knew that Gene was involved in photographing the war and he also knew that he’d photographed people in the medical field like in his Country Doctor pictures, or those of the missionary Albert Schweitzer, or Nurse Midwife Helen. He also new about Gene’s involvement with Japan so he put all that together and suggested we go to Minamata. That’s when we first heard about Minamata, in the fall of 1970.
We were going to Japan anyway for a big retrospective of his work that was being held there as well as in New York. Mr. Motomura was in charge of the exhibition and he suggested that while we were in Japan, we should go and photograph Minamata. We thought we’d be there for a maximum of three months. I think he probably wouldn’t have stayed longer than the three months without my Japanese connection. It would have been difficult for two foreigners.
IP. And this was a joint project, is that right?
AMS. It was completely a joint project – he and I did it together. About a quarter of the photographs are mine.
IP. Was it difficult gaining the trust of the people in Minamata, especially because Eugene Smith was a foreigner?
AMS. I think it was actually easier being partly a foreign team than being totally Japanese as far as connecting with the people in Minamata was concerned. People say it must have been even more difficult being foreign, but I think it was the reverse – being totally Japanese would have been more difficult.
We were very lucky because Kuwabara Shisei had photographed there in the early sixties when it was much harder. But when we arrived, some of the patients were already involved in a lawsuit and there was a national movement in support of the victims. It was very much a situation where they wanted to go and get their story out, so it was much easier. Of course, I think it wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t lived there. If we had just gone there quickly and if they could see that we were rushed, we wouldn’t have gained their trust.
IP. And you stayed there for three years?
AMS. That’s right. We went there after we’d just got married and they could see it was the first time a young wife was setting up household. Also, because of the age difference, people were quite sympathetic and kind of worried about us. They called Eugene “Shashin-ya san,” photography shop guy! They maybe didn’t realize what the implications were – how we would get our message out to the world, but it’s not like we kept it secret.
AMS. What were the reactions when the victims and their families saw the Minamata book with the photographs? Were there any objections?
IP. No, there weren’t any objections. When we published the book in Japanese, I gave a copy to everyone who was involved with the photographs. Gene had already passed away by then. The way I feel about giving those photographs out was it was like a foreign thing that didn’t have much to do with my relationship with them. It felt a little uncomfortable. It’s like if you are a family or have friends and you’ve talked about how you would record that relationship, but when you get the record, it’s a little bit foreign to your relationship with them. And it was very difficult to give the book to our landlady because for the first time she saw the skeleton of her daughter who was a victim. She hadn’t been at that cremation. It felt bad actually. I didn’t like doing that.
IP. There were tough times during those years for you both. I know Eugene was physically attacked. Would you mind talking a little about that?
AMS. The town of Minamata was quite split. As well as supporters of the victims, there were people working for Chisso and those on the side of the company who, of course, didn’t really like us, but the townspeople were quite cordial. It wasn’t in Minamata but when we were photographing in the Kanto area that Gene was beaten up.
We went to the Chisso factory in Goi, Chiba. It was clear that those workers considered patients, or anyone who photographed them or who was sympathetic to them, as their enemy, so it was clear that they targeted Gene.
IP. What effect did that have?
AMS. From the day that happened our life completely changed. He had already sustained so many injuries from the past. World War II—three plane crashes, more than thirty operations even before the Goi incident, so physically, things were difficult for him already. And he was washing down all that pain with alcohol—he was an alcoholic.
And then the Goi incident happened, and from that day on it was like there was this heavy, heavy burden on us as we photographed.
For example, he would raise his hand and sometimes he would just faint and I would drag him to the side and do the photographing. At one point, even if he raised his hand slightly, he would feel faint, so he got a leash put in his mouth and he tried to photograph with his mouth.
Sometimes his headaches got really bad. We lived in an old house in Minamata and we used firewood to heat the house. There was an axe that we used for splitting firewood and one time he said “Just bring that axe and split my head open.”
IP. He was obviously a very driven man with strong ideals to go through that kind of pain to take the pictures. Did you get this from him or did you have those ideals yourself already? You were very young at that time.
AMS. I was born after the war so, of course, I don’t remember that, but when I traveled to Hong Kong in 1960/61, I remember the refugees there. And I was in South East Asia with my father – I saw Vietnam in the war, and people living on the streets. So I always had this strong feeling of wanting to help. Then, in the early sixties, I was in the US and no-one had really met anyone from Japan, which was a poor country then, so I always felt that I was always representing Asia. This made me want to improve communication between people. At my university there were also the Vietnam protests, so I developed a strong sense of political justice. That all happened when I was very young, then I met Gene when I was twenty.
IP. Given Eugene Smith’s condition when you met him, did you feel that you also had to try and help him?
AMS. With Gene, it was like he had to have someone to save him, or he would die. This was a repeat thing he went through in his life, actually. I wasn’t the first person to show up who felt that he/she had to save him, but I didn’t know that. When I met him, he was in a very bad state and I kind of made a commitment to save him. It became a crusade to keep him going and to realize with him the objectives that he wanted to achieve.
IP. What did you learn from him?
AMS. We talked intensely in New York before going to Minamata about integrity and about journalism. My sense of integrity about journalism, about honesty, fairness, all of that very much came from Gene.
IP. And all of that is obviously still with you today because of the work you do with Green Action.
AMS. It’s changed now to activism rather than journalism. When I first met Gene, I didn’t have a journalism background. My ideas to help the world were all non-specific.
IP. So he gave you a focus?
AMS. Yes, definitely. And also, photography is physical work, so it was the first time I experienced doing physical work that would contribute towards helping the world in some way.
Gene’s intensity, of course, was great. And both he and I knew this would probably be his last project, even before going. This was the last statement that he was going to make so it was important to get it right.
IP. Years after Minamata, what can we learn from what happened?
AMS. What I would like to say is that we are still in the middle of Minamata. There are lawsuits going on as we speak with Minamata disease. One is concerned with those who were born at the time that the pollution was pretty bad, so they were contaminated inside the womb and as young children. They are saying that there hasn’t been a proper survey done. These people are in their early fifties now and they are suing for damages.
So when people ask what the lessons to be learned from this past experience are, I’d like to say that it’s not a past experience, it’s a present experience. Even in the 1960s, people were saying it’s finished, what can be learned from it? In the 70s and 80s, too. What can be learned is that we should do something about it today—deal with the damage today. In the fifty years since the recognition of the disease, there has never been an epidemiological study done of the whole area; there has never been a proper health study done with case control. So the lesson to be learned is to face up to it.
To deal with Minamata properly involves huge cost. Once you spread the poison to tens of thousands of people and they all have health damage, it’s not something that goes away. To deal with the compensation involved would mean an enormous amount of money, and what we can learn from Minamata is that companies and authorities always try to avoid facing up to these costs and it makes the problem worse.

W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Mioko Smith received the World Understanding Award USA for their work at Minamata, which was one of the first photojournalistic studies of environmental pollution. Sadly, there would be many more, as the events in the small town on the coast of Kyushu were replicated around the world with other sources of contamination, often on a much larger scale. Now Minamata is one name on a list that includes Bhopal, Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl.

W. Eugene Smith died in 1978, indirectly from injuries sustained during his work.

Aileen Mioko Smith continues to live in Japan and fight against potential sources of environmental pollution. She now runs the NPO Green Action, which is involved in the campaign against the use of Nuclear Energy in Japan.

This interview is a two-part interview. The next installment will appear in the Sept/Oct edition of Koe Magazine.

Photography care of the Aileen Archive:
NPO Green Action:




水俣病という病名は水銀を含む廃液が海に流されていた九州の水俣市で発生したことから付けられた。当時水銀は、化学製品の製造を行っていたチッソがアセトアルデヒドの生産過程において触媒として使っていたものである。チッソは1932年からアセトアルデヒドを生産していたが、人々がその有害性に気づいたのは1950年代に入ってからのことだった。当初、水俣湾周辺の猫に症状が現れ、次いで周辺の漁村地区の住民を中心に症状が見られるようになった。感覚障害、 筋肉疲労、求心性視野狭窄、痙攣、奇形、精神異常、などが主な症状だが、死に至る場合も多かった。1956年に熊本大学の研究班は有機水銀が水俣病の原因であると指摘し、チッソの排水が原因である疑いが濃くなったが、チッソ側はこれに強硬に反論した。その後も患者は増え続け、患者側とチッソ側の対立はさらに深まるとともに、周辺住民の生活に対する不安も深刻さを増していった。その後もチッソは水銀を流し続け、排水経路を不知火海に面した水俣川河口に変更した結果、今度は不知火海周辺の住民が水俣病と同様の症状を示し始める事態となった。




IP. まず、ユージン・スミスとあなたが水俣に行くことを決めた経緯についてお聞かせください。あなたが日本人のハーフであることが何か関係しているのですか?
AMS. 私が半分日本人であることは特に関係ありませんでした。一方、もともとユージンには日本と二つの関わりがありました。まず太平洋戦争です。彼は硫黄島、そして彼が負傷した沖縄での戦いなど、連合軍の13の侵攻作戦に従軍カメラマンとして参加しました。これらの島の住民たちが負傷したり殺されたり、崖から飛び降りて自殺してゆく様子を目の当たりにし、まだ25歳か26歳の若者だった彼は島の住民たちに同情の念を感じ、やがて日本人に関心を持つようになったのです。もう一つ、彼の日本との関わりは、1960年に日立のPR写真撮影で来日したことです。
IP. 写真集「水俣」は共同プロジェクトですよね?
AMS. そうです。「水俣」は彼との共同作業でした。全体の4分の1は私が撮った写真です。
IP. ユージンが外国人だったことで、水俣に馴染むことに苦労はありませんでしたか?
AMS. 水俣について言えば、仮に私たち二人とも100%日本人だった場合よりも馴染みやすかったように思います。二人とも100%外人だったらもっと難しかっただろうと言われますが、私は二人とも100%日本人だった方がもっと難しかっただろうと思います。
IP. それで3年間水俣に居られたんですね。
AMS. そうです。私たちが水俣に移り住んだのは結婚してすぐでしたから、若かった私が家事に不慣れな様子や、ユージンと私がずいぶん歳が離れていることなどを知って水俣の人たちは皆心配してくださったり親身に世話してくれたりしました。水俣ではユージンは「写真屋さん」と呼ばれていたんですよ。私たちの目的、私たちのメッセージをどうやって世界に発信するか、ということは必ずしも彼らは理解していなかったかもしれません。別に私たちの目的を隠していたわけではないのですが。
IP. 患者さんやその家族の皆さんの写真集「水俣」に対する反応は?反発などはありませんでしたか?
AMS. 反発は一切ありませんでした。ユージンの死後、日本語版が出版されたのでそれを被写体となった患者の方々全員に差し上げたのですが、その時の気持ちは複雑でした。患者の皆さんと打ち解けていたからこそ、患者さんの写真集という形で差し上げることはなんだかよそよそしい感じがして。特に、出来上がった写真集を私たちが住んでいた借家の大家さんに差し上げるのはとても抵抗がありました。彼女の娘さんが水俣病で亡くなり火葬されたときの遺骨の写真を写真集に載せていたのですが、大家さんは娘さんの火葬の場に出席しておられなかったので、その写真で初めて娘さんの遺骨を見たのです。あの時はとても辛かったです。
IP. 取材活動中、ユージンは大怪我をしましたね。その時のことを少しお話いただけますか?
AMS. 患者さんたちを支援する側、そしてチッソに勤務する人たちとチッソの支援者たちで水俣の町は分裂状態で、チッソ側の人たちは当然私たち二人を敵対視していましたが、一般市民は皆とても親切な人たちばかりでした。ユージンが怪我をしたのは水俣ではなく、関東で取材していた時のことです。
IP. その暴行事件で生活に何か影響はありましたか?
AMS. その事件以来、私たちの生活は一変しました。それ以前にも彼はたくさんの傷を負っていました。太平洋戦争中に3回の飛行機事故を経験し、チッソでの暴行事件以前に30回以上も手術を受けていましたから、もともと辛い状態ではあったわけです。そして彼はアルコールに依存していました。酒の力で痛みを忘れようとしていました。そしてチッソの暴行事件による大怪我で私たちの取材活動はますます難しくなってしまいました。
IP. ユージンはそのように辛い思いをしても報道写真家としての理想を追求しましたよね。あなたも同じような理想を持っていらっしゃると思いますが、それは彼から学んだのですか?それとも彼に会う前からあなたなりの理想像をすでに持っていらっしゃったのでしょうか?
AMS. 私は戦後の生まれなので戦争のことは直接知りませんが、1961年から62年にかけて香港を旅行した時に見た難民の事は印象に残っています。父と一緒に東南アジアにいたときは戦時下のベトナムにも行きました。そこではたくさんの路上生活者たちを見ました。そうした経験の中で、私の心の中にはいつも困っている人たちを助けたいという強い気持ちがありました。1960年代に入ってすぐ、日本人がほとんどいないアメリカで、私はまだまだ貧しかった日本、そしてアジアの代表という気持ちでいました。そんな気持ちが人々の心の架け橋となる何かをしたいという気持ちにつながっていったように思います。スタンフォード大学ではベトナム戦争に対する抗議行動も盛んで、私の政治的関心や正義感も大きくなっていきました。そうしたことを10代のときに経験し、二十歳の時にユージンと巡り会いました。
IP. 当時彼がやっていたことを知って、彼の考えに共感し、一緒に何かしたいと思ったのですか?
AMS. 彼は誰か彼を救ってくれる人がいなければ死んでしまうような状況でした。彼は生涯そういう人だったわけですが。私と出会う前にも彼を助けようとした人はいたようです。私と出会ったときの彼はとてもひどい状況だったので、見かねた私は彼を救うことを約束したのです。そして彼が目指していたことを実現するための共同作業が始まりました。
IP. あなたが彼から学んだものは?
AMS. 水俣に来る前に私たちはニューヨークで、信頼性とジャーナリズムのあり方についてたくさん話し合いました。ジャーナリズムにおける信頼性、誠実性、公平性、についての私の考え方はすべてユージンから学んだものです。
IP. あなたの考え方は現在のグリーン・アクションでの活動にすべて反映されているわけですね?
AMS. 今やっているのはジャーナリズムというよりも現状改革とでもいうべきものです。ユージンに出会った頃の私はジャーナリストとしての経験はありませんでした。困っている人々を助けたいという私の気持ちはまだ漠然としたものでした。
IP. それで彼から具体的にどうすればいいかヒントをもらったのですね?
AMS. そうです。そして写真を撮ることは肉体労働でした。報道写真家の仕事は私にとって世の中のために貢献できる初めての肉体労働でした。
IP. 水俣病の発生から長い年月が経ちましたが、今私たちが考えるべきことは何でしょうか?
AMS. 水俣の問題はまだ終わっていません。現在もいくつかの訴訟が継続中で、そのうち一つは、チッソによる公害が最もひどかった頃に生まれた世代が原告になっています。胎盤を通じて胎児の段階でメチル水銀に侵された胎児性水俣病の患者たちです。現在50歳を超えている彼らは、正確で公正な調査研究がいまだになされていないとして、損害賠償を求めて争っています。

ユージン・スミスとアイリーン・美緒子・スミスの二人は公害問題を取り上げた最初の報道写真作品として写真集「水俣」でWorld Understanding Award USAを受賞した。世界中で水俣と同じように、あるいはもっとずっと大きな規模で、様々な公害による健康被害が起きている。水俣病はインドのボパールの工場で起きた猛毒ガス漏れ事故、スリーマイル島事故、チェルノブイリ事故と並んでリストに記載されている。



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