Former leprosy patients urged the state on Thursday to step up efforts to restore their honor and that of deceased sufferers as they attended a government-sponsored ceremony remembering those subjected to years of discrimination in Japan.
From the Supreme Court, Secretary-General Yukihiko Imasaki attended the annual event for the first time, following the top court’s apology in April to former Hansen’s disease patients who were for years tried at segregated facilities.
The apology came exactly 20 years after the country abolished the 1931 law that allowed the segregation of patients with the mildly contagious disease. The segregation of leprosy patients at sanatoriums continued to be state policy until 1996.
Despite the repeal of the law, leprosy patients still face discrimination today, with some being urged by family members not to speak publicly and refrain from visiting their former group homes.
As of May 1, 1,577 people still lived in the 13 national sanatoriums in Japan, according to the health ministry.
With the average age of the former patients at 84.8, they are calling for the government to ensure there are a sufficient number of doctors at the sanatoriums and preserve the facilities to pass down the history of segregation to future generations.
A total of 568 families of the former patients have sued the state for damages and an apology, arguing that they, too, faced the same prejudice and discrimination the patients faced under the state’s segregation policy.
In a report released on April 25, the Supreme Court said segregated sessions, such as at sanatoriums and other facilities for leprosy patients, were held in 95 cases between 1948 and 1972. It determined that trying the patients outside standard courtrooms was “strongly suspected” of having contravened the Constitution’s guarantee of equality, and apologized for hurting their character and dignity.
Many former leprosy patients are still suffering from discrimination and prejudice.
Yasuji Hirasawa, 89, who is actively speaking about his experience at lectures nationwide, was aged 14 when he was diagnosed with the disease and admitted to a sanatorium.
He married his wife at the facility when he was 23 but was forced to undergo sterilization surgery.
“I was treated like a dog or a cat and the misery lingered on,” said Hirasawa.
Although it was not contagious, taxi drivers refused to offer a ride and chairs that he used were disinfected afterward.
Over the past two decades, he feels more people have become more understanding. But it’s also true that he can’t visit the home where his relatives live because some of them are hiding the fact that Hirasawa is a leprosy patient.
Two years ago, Hirasawa received a letter from his younger sister asking him to stop talking to the media and speaking at lectures. He said for three months after that, he was so depressed he stopped speaking at lectures, but then realized his suffering meant he was the only person who could root out discrimination.
One ray of hope is the children that he met through lectures.
Even though their parents and grandparents tell them not to go, they still visit the National Hansen’s Disease Museum to learn about the disease and what patients suffered. On their second visit, they come with their parents and grandparents, he said.