December 13th 2018
TOKYO — Only one complaint was filed with a central government panel during a 20-year period to review a prefectural-level decision to conduct a forced sterilization under the now defunct eugenic protection law, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare documents show.
Under the law, on the books from 1948 to 1996, prefectural eugenic protection panels made decisions on sterilization operations on individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses or so-called hereditary diseases based on applications from doctors. The person subjected to such a decision or their family could seek a re-examination by the central eugenic protection council. If this appeal failed, they had the final option of going to court.
The central government had justified forced sterilizations, which were criticized for violating the human rights of those subject to the surgeries, on the grounds that “strict” procedures allowing the appeal of the authorities’ decisions was indeed in place. The finding has demonstrated that the procedures had become a mere facade at an early stage of the law’s enforcement.
A document prepared by the Ministry of Health and Welfare — the predecessor to the current Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry — around 1981 indicated that the central panel held two meetings on an appeal on May 19, 1961, but no other appeals were filed.
Since April this year, the Mainichi Shimbun has made inquiries about records of the meetings of the central council to the Health Ministry. However, the ministry replied that they did not have any related documents because the storage period had expired.
According to documents related to the law released by prefectural governments in response to Mainichi Shimbun inquiries, prefectural eugenic protection panel members expressed concerns about the old law’s potential violation of human rights shortly after its introduction in 1948.
An October 1949 Ministry of Health and Welfare directive informed prefectural governments that the central government’s legal experts had examined a ministry inquiry, and that although forcible sterilization operations “indeed come with restrictions on basic human rights,” the law offered an appeal system for those told to undergo operations. This was said to be “sufficient consideration” for “ensuring human rights” and made the forcible operations permissible, the experts had concluded.
However, a document released by the prefectural government of Hokkaido in northern Japan shows a situation to the contrary. When the guardian of a woman ordered to be sterilized sought nullification of the decision by the local eugenic protection council in July 1965, the panel turned down the complaint on the grounds that the guardian “did not have sufficient understanding of the law.”
In another set of records related to the Kanagawa panel between 1962 and 1963, parents were required to submit letters of consent at the time applications for four forced operations, for which such consent was unnecessary, were first submitted. This effectively prevented them from appealing the following decisions. Documents from Wakayama Prefecture in western Japan revealed that at least 68 people were operated on within the two-week period in which appeals could be made.
After the eugenic law was revised into the current Maternal Health Act in 1996, a United Nations body requested the introduction of redress measures for people who were forced to undergo sterilization operations. The organization said that the medical procedures violated the subjects’ human rights. The Japanese government refused to comply, saying that the surgeries were conducted “under strict procedures,” including the appeal mechanism.
Professor Yoko Matsubara of Ritsumeikan University, who specializes in life ethics, said the fact that only one appeal was made in a 20-year period indicates that the procedures for forced sterilization operations “were not ‘strict’ despite the government’s justification of its action citing the review system.” Matsubara said the central government should investigate the situation and provide an explanation.