Lawmakers weigh compensation for victims of forced sterilization under Japan’s defunct eugenics law

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A cross-party group of lawmakers was established Tuesday to discuss compensation for victims of forced sterilization, a practice that continued for decades in postwar Japan under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law.

Coupled with a recent rise in momentum within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito for setting up task forces to look into the matter, the long-delayed step heralds a move toward redressing victims of the 1948 law, which wasn’t scrapped until 1996.

The topic fast attracted the attention of the nation’s lawmakers when a Miyagi Prefecture woman in her 60s filed a lawsuit against the state in January seeking ¥11 million in damages. The woman, who underwent sterilization at the age of 15, argues that the law infringed upon her reproductive rights and human equality. Discussions about a possible marriage fell apart due to her infertility, according to her lawyer.

Upon convening their first meeting, the lawmakers said they will revisit the law and re-evaluate its constitutionality, as well as discuss possible frameworks to compensate victims.

“It surprises me that this law, which was originally drafted by lawmakers themselves, was passed by the Diet with unanimous support in 1948,” LDP lawmaker Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who until August served as health minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told the gathering.

“We will think about what we can do by conducting a clear review of what happened,” he said.

The health ministry estimates, based on data provided by each municipality across the nation, that under the law about 25,000 people underwent sterilization before its 1996 revision. Of the total, the ministry says, about 16,500 went through operations without their consent. By prefecture, the ministry’s data shows, Hokkaido is home to the largest number of victims at 2,512, followed by Miyagi at 1,355 and Okayama at 825.

Also present at the meeting was Koji Niisato, who represented the Miyagi woman. He compared Japan’s situation to that of Germany and Sweden, where, he emphasized, the state has apologized for similar eugenics-based laws of their own in the past and offered compensation. No such steps have been taken in Japan, however, where the state has ignored several calls by United Nations committees to indemnify victims, he said.

Kimie Nagumo, 54, who suffers cerebral palsy and came to observe Tuesday’s meeting, cringed when remembering her childhood days, recalling how matter-of-factly adults around her kept harping on how she needed to “have her uterus removed” if she ever had trouble taking care of her own periods. She said she herself didn’t undergo forced sterilization.

“There was a time I thought I wasn’t allowed to give birth to a baby,” Nagumo told The Japan Times after the meeting. “I hope no woman with disabilities will ever hesitate to get married and become a mother.”

When it was enacted, the eugenics law had the aim of precluding the birth of “inferior” offspring and protecting the health of mothers. It came on the heels of growing concerns over issues such as overpopulation and backstreet abortions. In 1996, it was replaced by the Maternal Health Law.