“Blossoms on a Poisoned Sea: A Novel of Love & Betrayal in Minamata” by Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko Tatsumoto Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko Tatsumoto has made her name as a children’s author; her new book, Blossoms on a Poisoned Sea: A Novel of Love & Betrayal in Minamata, Japan, set during the 1956 industrial disaster, is suited for a more mature audience of adults and young adults. It’s a thrilling coming of age romance of a poor daughter of a fisherman family and a wealthy son of a corporate executive, one that probably resonates more than ever with contemporary readers after the recent pandemic. 

Kiyo and Yuki are fourteen when they meet on the birthday they share. Kiyo’s father is an executive at the Chisso chemical corporation while Yuki’s father is a fisherman. Yuki wants to be an artist and Kiyo aims to be a doctor when he’s an adult.

Thanks to an introduction from his father, Kiyo is able to shadow a doctor in Minamata. When Kiyo first meets Dr Hosokawa (based on a real person of the same name), the teen learns of a new disease in the area. According to the doctor:

 

Last month I examined a five-year-old at our factory hospital. The symptoms were difficulty in walking and speaking. She was also having convulsions, so I hospitalized her. Two days later, her younger sister presented with the same symptoms. I admitted her, too. Their neighbor’s daughter had similar issues. Then we discovered eight more afflicted people after a house-to-house survey of the neighborhood. They’re all in the hospital now, deteriorating quickly. So far, nothing has significantly eased their suffering or controlled the symptoms. Because of its localized nature, I suspect the disease may be contagious. I’d like to isolate those patients.

 

Kiyo and Yuki notice that cats around the bay are presenting with similar convulsions. There’s a theory that people and cats are suffering from metal poisoning; Kiyo’s father tells his family to stop eating fish and seafood, no matter where it comes from in Japan, while Yuki’s family relies on local fish for their sustenance even after their uncle dies from this unknown disease.

 

Blossoms On A Poisoned Sea: A Novel of Love & Betrayal in Minamata, Japan,  Mariko Tatsumoto (Northampton House, February 2024)
Blossoms On A Poisoned Sea: A Novel of Love & Betrayal in Minamata, Japan, Mariko Tatsumoto (Northampton House, February 2024)

Tatsumoto’s descriptive writing is particularly apparent when she writes about the cats enlisted for Dr Hosokawa’s experiments.

 

In the back, three sides of the hospital building surrounded a small courtyard. An eight-foot tall wire fence on the open side now enclosed it. And inside that, orange, black, white, tiger-striped, calico, tuxedo patterned, long- and short-haired cats padded around. Some hissing or batting at each other, others meowing or grooming themselves. A few were drinking from a large shallow water bowl. A bobtailed gray cat suddenly sprang up as if to scale the fence, but fell short a few inches from the top and fell back, landing nimbly on its feet.

 

As Dr Hosokawa suspects, fish and seafood are contaminated with mercury and when people and animals like cats eat it, they, too, become poisoned.

There is a scene of sexual assault towards the end of the book. Although Tatsumoto handles it with compassion, not everyone may consider it appropriate for a YA novel. Authors should take risks, of course, but this seems an unnecessary one, as the incident isn’t integral to the main story line.

 

The author’s note gives  a clear political purpose:

 

Environmental pollution continues throughout the world, sometimes unchecked, especially in less advanced countries. People (mainly the poor) living around polluted sites contract illnesses, suffer, and often die. Large, powerful corporations still deliberately hide toxic activities, even buying off government officials. They keep polluting for the sheer sake of profit. Globally speaking, more than nine million deaths a year are attributed to environmental pollution. There’s only one way to stop this willful criminal practice. Concerned citizens must keep abreast of what’s happening throughout the world, then speak up and demand change.

 

Politics does not however intrude greatly on this story of teen empowerment, as Yuki and Kiyo fight corporate stonewalling and the Japanese government to save both families and the environment.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.