April 25th 2019
A bill to compensate people who were sterilized under a widespread and decades-long eugenics program was enacted on April 24th 2019 and immediately put into effect.
Under the program, which was based on the Eugenic Protection Law, some 25,000 people with physical, intellectual or mental disabilities or genetic diseases were forcibly sterilized, robbed of the possibility of bearing, begetting and rearing children. The program was designed to achieve the national goal of halting the procreation of people deemed inferior.
More than 20 years since the eugenics law was abolished in 1996, a program to provide relief to surviving victims is finally in place. But the legislative initiative, which was triggered by a lawsuit filed last year by one victim, has come far too late.
MOUNTAIN OF UNRESOLVED ISSUES
The folly, which started immediately after the end of World War II, continued for nearly 50 years. The Diet, which enacted the eugenics law, the government, which promoted the policy, and society as a whole, are being held responsible for failing to tackle the problem for so long.The enactment of the relief measure should lead the nation to make a renewed determination to protect the dignity of individuals and embrace social diversity.
The compensation program will provide lump-sum payments of 3.2 million yen ($28,500) to each of the victims in response to their applications for relief filed with a screening panel of experts. But only about 3,000, or slightly more than 10 percent of the people who underwent state-ordered sterilizations, have been identified.
It is vital to send notices to individual victims who can be contacted while taking effective steps to identify more victims and make the procedures for applications widely known.
The government has decided against sending notices to individuals citing concerns about possible privacy violations. But there are quite a few surviving victims who are not even aware that they had the operation because of their disabilities and whose parents and relatives who knew about it are deceased.
The Tottori prefectural government has decided on a system for cooperative efforts with municipal governments to tackle this problem. Under the system, prefectural government employees will meet with the victims and their families and relatives to notify them about the program. This idea is instructive for the central and local governments.
The amount of money to be paid to victims should also be reconsidered. In determining the amount, the legislators who drafted the bill used a similar compensation system in Sweden, which started paying cash to victims of a eugenics program two decades ago, for reference. But many have criticized the cash compensation for being too small.
A group of disabled people has issued a statement criticizing the legislation for “lacking the viewpoint of victims.”
The Diet should respond to the argument that the legislation was drafted and enacted without paying sufficient attention to the voices of victims.
A THOROUGH REVIEW ESSENTIAL
There were confirmed cases of forced sterilization based on notions of eugenics in the early 1900s in which people with Hansen’s disease were unlawfully sterilized. In 1940, under wartime conditions, Japan established the national eugenic act, which was inspired by the German law for the prevention of genetically diseased offspring, or “sterilization law,” which was enacted by Nazi Germany.In 1948, the Diet unanimously passed the lawmaker-drafted bill to strengthen the act into the Eugenic Protection Law, which went so far as to sanction forced operations.
Despite the postwar Constitution’s provisions to guarantee and respect basic human rights, the legislature created the law mainly for the purpose of curbing population growth amid a severe food shortage at that time in a move driven by wrongheaded ideas about the “public interest.”
Under the slogan of “We won’t have unhappy children,” it was stressed that it is in the “best interest” of unborn children and their families to keep the children from coming into the world.
The former health ministry promoted sterilization procedures and local governments competed with each other to increase the number of cases.
Operations not designated by the law or those involving tying down or deceiving victims were also permitted. There was even a case of a 9-year-old girl being forced to receive the operation.
Amid growing criticism about the law from the United Nations and the international community, the provisions concerning sterilization procedures were deleted from the law in 1996. But the revision was made through hasty and insufficient debate at the Diet.
Even though Sweden’s efforts to find out the facts about its past sterilization program and pay compensation to victims attracted international attention, no in-depth debate on the subject occurred in Japan.
The law to create an old program to forcefully quarantine people with Hansen’s disease was abolished around the same time as the revision to the Eugenic Protection Law.
Following a 2001 court ruling that proclaimed the policy under the Leprosy Prevention Law unconstitutional, the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided not to appeal the ruling and promised to offer apologies and compensation for the victims.
While it was revealed that Hansen’s disease patients were subjected to eugenics operations such as sterilization and abortions, no wave of strong public criticism arose about a broader range of cases involving people with disabilities.
Neither members of the medical and welfare communities nor the media, including The Asahi Shimbun, made serious and effective responses to the desperate calls for relief of eugenics victims.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has issued an official government statement apologizing to victims. But it was the Diet that established the law.
The Diet has the obligation to take steps to make amends for its past mistake, such as setting up an independent committee comprising experts in various related areas to scrutinize the backgrounds and facts concerning the program and glean lessons from the mistake. The Diet should pass a resolution expressing its commitment to taking such steps along with its soul-searching and apologies.
STANDING BY THE VICTIMS
Three years ago, a frenzied attack on a disabled peoples’ home in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, killed 19 residents of the welfare facility. The attacker said society would be better off without disabled people.The gruesome attack sent shock waves among disabled people and their families by underscoring the fact that the concept of eugenics is still alive in today’s Japan. They felt a strong sense of isolation from society.
The enactment of the measure to compensate eugenics victims should trigger a broad public conversation over the deep-rooted problem of the exclusion of and discrimination against minorities including not only people with disabilities but also foreigners and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).
We should reflect on how words and deeds based on a sense of repugnance, disinterest and a lack of imagination with regard to such people could hurt, isolate and silence them.
The preamble of the new relief law states, “We renew our determination to make all possible efforts to realize an inclusive society.”
Efforts toward this goal should start with making a solid commitment to respecting the human rights of individuals and protecting their dignity.
Chizuko Sasaki, a victim of the eugenics program, kept trying to make people aware of the plight of victims through lectures until she died six years ago at the age of 65. Sasaki, who was a Hiroshima citizen, developed cerebral palsy due to high fever soon after her birth and underwent a sterilization operation when she was 20.
“I don’t want you to forget,” she said. “Here’s a person who has suffered.”
We should start by taking her words to heart.