SENDAI – The government Wednesday demanded the dismissal of a compensation claim filed by a woman in her 60s with intellectual disabilities over her forced sterilization under the now-defunct eugenic protection law.
In the first such trial in Japan, the woman from Miyagi Prefecture is seeking ¥11 million ($104,000) in damages from the state, claiming it failed to take legislative measures to save the victims from “grave human rights violations.”
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has maintained that forced sterilizations were legal at the time. The law, in force from 1948 to 1996, authorized the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, mental illness or hereditary disorders to prevent births of “inferior” offspring.
Koji Niisato, who heads the woman’s legal team, said in the first hearing on Wednesday at the Sendai District Court, “A (sterilization) surgery breaches fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution as it deprives the disabled of their right to decide on their own whether to bear and raise a child.”
Calling for expedient measures because many victims are getting old, Niisato said their opportunities for marriage had been “taken away” and they endured “immeasurable physical and psychological pain.”
According to the suit, the woman was diagnosed with “hereditary feeble-mindedness” at age 15 in 1972 and was forcibly sterilized following a screening by a prefectural panel. After the surgery, she routinely suffered from stomachaches and went through mental anguish, with a prospective marriage broken off because of the sterilization.
The trial comes as the issue has garnered increasing public attention, with lawmakers forming a bipartisan group to study relief measures for people who were sterilized under the law. The health ministry has also decided to conduct a nationwide survey on forced sterilization.
Around 25,000 people were sterilized under the law, some 16,500 without their consent. The state has not apologized or provided compensation. Other victims in Hokkaido and Tokyo have either filed or are planning to file lawsuits following the example of the Miyagi woman.
Many supporters, including people with disabilities, gathered at the Sendai court Wednesday wearing bracelets with pink ribbons to show solidarity with the plaintiff.
Akihito Nagata, a 29-year-old university student from Sendai who developed multiple sclerosis at the age of 21, came to the site in a wheelchair. “I want the government to acknowledge that (sterilization) was an inhumane act. I want to hear an apology,” he said.
Katsumi Yamamoto, a 79-year-old counselor who in the 1970s joined an anti-sterilization movement, said, “We have finally come this far. Now our fully-fledged battle begins.”
Despite the law’s repeal in 1996, discrimination against the disabled continues. In 2016, a former worker at a care home for the mentally disabled in Sagamihara near Tokyo fatally stabbed 19 residents, believing the “disabled should be eradicated.”
The law, modeled on similar legislation in Nazi Germany, was enacted in 1948 as a measure to control population growth amid a postwar food shortages. However, it remained in force until 1996, long after the country’s recovery.
The plaintiff’s sister-in-law, who assisted the woman with completing procedures for the suit, told supporters in a meeting after the hearing, “The disabled and their families have been living in darkness and storms. I hope this trial will change society for the better.”
Before Wednesday’s hearing, the sister-in-law had said, “If we do not address eugenic ideas now, an incident like the stabbing rampage in Sagamihara might happen again. We absolutely cannot tolerate a society in which people can be hurt because of their disabilities.”