Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Saturday offered an apology to victims of mercury poisoning more than 50 years after the country's worst industrial pollution disaster hit the fishing town of Minamata.
Hatoyama made the sincerest ever government apology at an annual memorial service in Minamata after his administration settled a suit by more than 2,000 victims of the poisoning in March.
"I admit responsibility for not being able to prevent the disease from spreading and apologise from the bottom of my heart," said Hatoyama, who became the first prime minister to attend the annual service.
From the 1950s on a synthetic resin factory run by chemical company Chisso Corp dumped methyl mercury into the bay of the town on southwestern Kyushu island, poisoning the marine habitat and the local population.
Victims suffered spasms, seizures and loss of sensation and motor control that impaired their ability to walk and speak. Babies were born with nervous system damage and other mental and physical deformities.
The health problems in Minamata were first reported by a local hospital in 1956. Although Chisso was immediately suspected, its management denied responsibility and the plant continued dumping mercury until 1968, when the company was officially blamed for the health problems.
The Supreme Court in 1988 found Chisso's then president and then director of Chisso Minamata Factory guilty.
Following the out-of-court settlement in March, the government also adopted redress measures for more than 30,000 unrecognised Minamata disease sufferers.