Junko Iizuka remembers clearly the day she was taken to a hospital as a teenager and forcibly sterilized under a government program.
Her foster mother gave her a rice ball as they stood by a river, and then took her without explanation to a doctor.
Sometime afterward, Iizuka, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym when describing her experience, woke up in a hospital bed with a huge vertical scar across her stomach.
Iizuka, now in her 70s, is one of thousands of men and women forcibly sterilized as part of what has been called a eugenics program — a law in place until 1996 that mandated the procedure for people judged to have disabilities.
After the operation Iizuka was sent back to her birth parents. It was only then that she understood what had happened, when she overheard them saying she was now sterile.
“That was when my anguish started,” she said during an interview at her small, meticulously neat home.
The health ministry acknowledges that around 16,500 people were forcibly sterilized under the law, which came into force in 1949.
The law allowed doctors to sterilize people with inheritable intellectual disabilities, to “prevent the generation of poor-quality descendants.”
Another 8,500 people were sterilized with their consent, according to authorities, though lawyers say even those cases were likely “de facto forced” because of the pressure individuals faced.
Iizuka had never been formally diagnosed with a disability, though her foster mother sent her to a home for intellectually disabled children at the age of 14.
Her father later told her that local officials had “repeatedly pushed” him to sign off on the procedure, an operation that has haunted her for decades.
“When I moved to Tokyo to start working, I went to a hospital to ask doctors if they could fix my body,” she said quietly, her voice tight with frustration.
“But it was impossible.”
In her 20s she turned down marriage offers because she was sterile, though she eventually married and adopted a son.
“But I still envy my friends when I see them receiving visits from their grandchildren,” she said.
For two decades she lobbied the government to recognize her suffering, but she always received the same response: The procedure was legal at the time, and no apology nor compensation would be given.
Michiko Sato has heard the same response while lobbying on behalf of her sister-in-law, Yumi, who was sterilized as a teenager.
Both women, now in their 60s, asked to be referred to by pseudonyms.
“I’ve picked up the gauntlet,” Sato said. “But to be honest, I feel so empty asking myself, ‘Why do we have to fight despite this clear human rights violation?’ ”
Michiko learned about the procedure Yumi was subjected to when she married into the Sato family, more than 40 years ago.
“I was 19, she was 18. … When I first heard about it from her mother, I felt so sorry for both of them.”
“I couldn’t ask why; I felt it would be too cruel to her mother to ask,” she said.
“For years I wondered why she had been sterilized, before I learned last year that it had been forced on her at the age of 15.”
A childhood photo shows Yumi as a smiling, rosy-cheeked girl with bobbed hair.
She had learning disabilities caused by an accident involving anaesthesia during an operation as an infant.
It was a condition she could not have passed on, but she was sterilized anyway.
With Michiko’s help, she is now suing the government in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, demanding compensation and an apology.
The government has urged the court to dismiss the case.
“Disabled people are still stigmatized by the general public, and that’s part of the reason I’m doing this,” said Michiko.
She points to the murder last year of 19 people at a center in Kanagawa Prefecture for people with disabilities.
The perpetrator claimed he was on a mission to rid the world of people with mental illness.
“We have to change this kind of thinking,” Michiko said.
“Disabled people are human beings, and precious family members.”
The lawsuit has prompted others to come forward, including a man in his 70s who read about Sato’s case and thought, “Isn’t this what happened to me?”
“I’ve been in agony about this for years,” he told reporters recently, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He was sterilized as a teenager. When he married, years later, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife, only confiding in her shortly before her death in 2013.
“I felt pain when I saw my wife cradling someone else’s baby,” he said.
“I’ve kept this burden in my heart for a long time. … I want my life back.”
In March, lawmakers pledged to look into possible compensation for those affected, with plans for a bill on the issue next year.
But victims and their supporters say the process is moving too slowly.
“I am inching closer to my grave,” Iizuka, now battling breast cancer, told lawmakers in March.
“Everyone is aging. Please make some progress quickly.”