Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

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First housecats in Minamata, on the west coast of Kyushu in Japan, went berserk, jumping into the sea. Then it began to affect local fishermen, whose lips and limbs would tingle and then become numb. Their speeches slurred; many died. Women gave birth to deformed foetuses and blind children. It was termed Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Caused by methyl mercury in industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory from 1932 to 1968, the disease claimed thousands of lives surreptitiously while the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.

It was a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to the disease. Smith and his interpreter, a Japanese American student from Stanford University named Aileen Mioko Sprague (whom Smith would soon marry) were touring Japan for an exhibition of his works. They planned to stay in Minamata for three weeks, but ended up staying for three years. For eighteen dollars a month, they rented a house belonging to one of the victims, sharing a dirt-floored kitchen and bath, where they developed photos.

The most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. The pieta of our industrial age, critics called it, and the photoessay was ‘a case study in Japanese politics’ the New York Times wrote. Although the photo was posed for Smith, the family subsequently asked the photo to be withdrawn from circulation. The picture does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith’s works.

A month after this photo, on January 7th 1972, Smith joined other Minamata victims at a demonstration at Chisso’s plant near Tokyo, where he was attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees which left him with a permanently damaged eye and a crippled health. This attack made Smith a familiar face on local news. A Tokyo department store staged an exhibit of Smith’s photos, which was visited by 50,000 people in twelve days. The photos led the government to take more direct actions and the company to pay compensation. Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.


12 thoughts on “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

    • Eugene Smith died in 1978 and the copyright of this and other Minamata photographs passed on to his ex-wife Aileen Smith who subsequently returned the copyright to the Uemura family who have expressly requested that Tomoko’s photograph no longer be used..

      In the words of Tomoko Uemura’s father: “I wanted Tomoko to be laid to rest and this feeling was growing steadily”. Aileen smith has stated: “This photograph would mean nothing if it did not honor Tomoko. This photograph would be a profanity if it continued to be issued against the will of Tomoko and her family. Because this was a statement about Tomoko’s life, it must honor that life and by it her death.”

      I will let the owner of this post decide what course of action to take.

  1. […] Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath – It was a dramatic photographic essay (1971-73) by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to Minamata disease. The above photo, the most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed … […]

  2. I’m soooo very sorry👀Why I never knew this!! There’s so much kept from us: yet so much bs on media!! The pic is a poignant and profound image of compassion! Makes you wonder though what else is out there to environ-mentally destroy our health???

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