Minamata sufferers cut short at meeting to seek apology from minister

Groups of Minamata disease sufferers are seeking an apology from Japan's environment minister. During a meeting with the minister, some speakers had their microphones switched off. Minamata disease is caused by environmental pollution and said to have devastated the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Eight groups of sufferers and victims met Environment Minister Ito Shintaro in the southwestern city of Minamata on May 1, the 68th anniversary of when the disease was first officially recognized.

Each representative was given three minutes to convey their requests and other messages to the minister.

A ministry official who emceed the meeting cut off an 82-year-old man after his allotted time was up. The man had not finished talking about his wife, who died last year without being recognized as a patient of the disease. The microphone was then switched off.

Another speaker also had their microphone turned off after exceeding the allotted time.

After the meeting, the groups asked ministry officials if they controlled the microphone. The officials responded that they were at fault, and apologized.

Minister Ito said he was not aware that someone had turned off the microphone.

The groups say such behavior tramples on the feelings and wishes of sufferers and was inexcusable.

They plan to give a news conference on Wednesday to request that the minister offer an apology and hold another round of talks.

Ministry officials said on Tuesday that it was inappropriate to abruptly switch off the microphone. They said the minister had instructed them to meet with the participants in person and offer an apology.

The officials say the three-minute rule has been in place for years but it was the first time the microphone had actually been turned off.

Earlier in the day, top government spokesperson Hayashi Yoshimasa told reporters that it is important to listen carefully to the opinions of people concerned so that proper steps can be taken. The chief cabinet secretary said it was inappropriate that the Environment Ministry's response caused discomfort to people on an occasion when their opinions were being heard.

He said the Environment Ministry will consider an appropriate response.