At first, Japanese victims of Hansen’s disease were jubilant after a court fined a hot spring resort that turned them away last year. Then came the hate mail.
“We don’t want to get into the same baths as you,” seethed one of the 130 letters aimed at residents at Kikuchi-Keifuen sanitarium in Kumamoto Prefecture.
The case and the angry letters illustrate the lingering bigotry still plaguing former Hansen’s patients in Japan, who were segregated under official policy until 1996.
In a bid to erase that stigma, the government plans for the first time to host symposiums on the disease, fund antidiscrimination TV programs and include the sad history of the victims in school textbooks.
“We are placing importance on resolving this problem, as there appears to be a lot of public misunderstanding,” Justice Ministry official Yutaka Tanabe said.
Former victims lauded the government steps, to be funded in next year’s national budget.
“This kind of discrimination doesn’t melt away easily,” said Akira Ota, one of 18 former leprosy victims turned away by a hotel at the hot spring resort of Kurokawa Onsen in the prefecture. He has been cured of the disease for more than 40 years.
Hansen’s disease is caused by a bacterium that affects the nerves and can discolor the skin and cause deformities. Medical researchers in the late 1940s discovered the first effective cure for the disease and showed it was easily treatable and not highly contagious.
But it took Japan until 1996 to repeal measures that had allowed the government to order Hansen’s disease patients into quarantine since 1907. Victims were forced to live in sanitariums on small islands or deep in mountainous hinterlands. Men were required to be sterilized before marrying.
Public understanding toward some 4,000 Hansen’s disease sufferers in Japan has lagged far behind the repeal of the Leprosy Prevention Law. Many in Japan are said to shun the sick and infirm because of the Buddhist belief that illness is payback for bad deeds carried out in previous lives.
Ota and other residents of the Kikuchi-Keifuen sanitarium were turned away from the Ai-Ladies Kyuden Kurokawa Onsen Hotel in November after being told their condition would “frighten” other guests.
The incident caused a media outcry, drew a criminal complaint from the Justice Ministry and led to a court-ordered fine against the hotel and its parent company.
But public opinion was not so sympathetic: The sanitarium was flooded with hate mail.
“Get lost,” said one letter, according to Ota. “You’re using our taxes, so accept the hotel’s apology and shut up.”
Starting next year, the Justice Ministry plans to spend tens of millions of yen to launch a campaign to educate Japanese about Hansen’s disease, which will include symposiums, human rights consultations at sanitariums, newspapers advertisements, TV programs and films.
It is the first time the ministry will be asking for money from the state budget in relation to Hansen’s disease, acknowledging that it is a human rights issue, and not simply a health matter, Tanabe said.
In another first, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry also plans to introduce the history of isolating Hansen’s victims into sixth-grade textbooks next year.
Ota, 60, who was brought to Kikuchi-Keifuen with his mother when he was 8, speaks excitedly of the recent steps to make amends.
But his voice softens as he describes how ostracism has become a way of life.
He and his mother have chosen to remain on Kikuchi-Keifuen’s secluded compound.
“Most of us lost our families a long time ago,” he said. “This is where we feel comfortable.”
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