One day when Saburo Kita was 14, he was taken from an institution for troubled children to see a doctor. Despite protesting that his health was fine, he was ordered to strip, lie down on a table, and was given a local anaesthetic.
Then the surgery began.
He was left with a thick, v-shaped scar on his lower body and questions about what had happened. Months later, talking with a friend, he learned that he had been sterilized. So had two others from the same institution in Miyagi Prefecture.
“There was no explanation, ever,” said Kita, now 75, who uses the pseudonym in the media to avoid questions from his late wife’s family. “I was left with a body that couldn’t create children.”
But he did not realize until January that his surgery was part of a government program to prevent the birth of “inferior descendants” that saw tens of thousands sterilized, often without their consent, under a law not revoked until 1996.
Most were physically or cognitively disabled. But others suffered from leprosy — curable, and now known as Hansen’s disease — mental illness or simply had behavioral problems. Kita had been sent to an institution for fighting at school.
Now the victims, many of whom were in their teens or younger when they were sterilized, are fighting back, demanding justice from a government they say violated their human rights. A mentally disabled woman in her 60s has sued for an apology and ¥11 million ($100,328) in compensation, and other suits may follow soon.
All could embarrass the government, which insists the surgeries were done legally, and Japan, where attitudes about the disabled still lag other advanced nations even as it prepares to host the Paralympic Games in 2020.
“Right after the war, rebuilding the country and its people was paramount, so in the name of building better citizens for the nation, the law came into effect,” said Keiko Toshimitsu, a bioethics researcher and head of an activist group supporting those who were forcibly sterilized. “It was to build a better Japan — along, of course, with prejudice against the disabled.
“Then in the 1960s and 1970s there was rapid economic growth, so they needed people born who could keep the growth going.”
An official at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, would not discuss the law or the lawsuits in detail.
“It was an operation that was carried out according to a law that was in force at the time, so we are contesting it with the stance that it is not a matter for compensation,” he said.
Though the most notorious eugenics laws were imposed by Nazi Germany, Japan is not the only nation with similar programs in peacetime. Sweden sterilized 63,000 people under a 1935-1975 program, almost all women, in the name of racial purity.
Thirty-two U.S. states embraced eugenics at some point, with the number of sterilizations climbing after a 1927 Supreme Court decision upholding a Virginia law. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes compared the state’s duty to sterilize a woman to the need to protect the public against smallpox with compulsory vaccinations.
But laws overseas, by and large, were revoked in the 1970s; Sweden apologized and paid compensation after media reports brought the problem to light in 1997. North Carolina and Virginia have also offered compensation.
Japan’s Eugenics Protection Law came into effect in 1948 as it struggled with food shortages and rebuilding a ravaged nation.
Sterilizations peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. The last surgery under the law was carried out in 1993, and the measure was revoked three years later.
Of the estimated 25,000 people sterilized during this time, at least 16,500 did not give their consent — unneeded if a eugenics board signed off on it after an often cursory review. Few records remain.
“It seems there were zealous doctors who took the law up systematically, promoting it as a truly noble way to save the nation,” said Koji Niisato, a lawyer overseeing the lawsuits.
Methods varied. Hysterectomies were recommended for disabled women in institutions on the pretext they couldn’t handle their menstruation. One woman born with cerebral palsy was subjected to high doses of radiation to her reproductive organs.
The reasons varied as well, in some cases going beyond the scope of the original law.
A woman now in her 70s known as Junko Iizuka in the Japanese media, who had limited schooling because of poverty, was given an intelligence test as a teenager and did badly. She was then diagnosed as “feeble-minded” and sterilized.
“When you look at lots of victims’ statements, none of these are disabilities that were inheritable,” said lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima, secretary-general of a multiparty lawmaker group working on the issue. “It was definitely due to prejudice, or poverty … an accumulation of discrimination and black marks.”
Fukushima hopes by next year to present a law proposing compensation for the victims, and lawyer Niisato expects more will come forward, emboldened by publicity around the court cases.
“The idea they were sterilized because they were disabled isn’t something anybody wants to bring up,” he said. “They were afraid that if they did, people would say ‘well, you’re disabled, it can’t be helped.'”
Though overt discrimination has fallen, attitudes toward the disabled lag those overseas and on rare occasions has shown up in horrific acts. In 2016, 19 people at a facility for the disabled in Kanagawa Prefecture were murdered in their sleep by a man who had advocated euthanasia for the physically and mentally impaired.
The incident led to a wider conversation about attitudes toward disabled people. A 2017 Cabinet Office report noted, “This incident is considered to be caused by the background of unilateral and selfish prejudice and discrimination towards persons with disabilities,” adding that dispelling such discrimination is “imperative” and “promoting the public understanding … (is) deemed to be recognized anew.”
With the Paralympics rapidly approaching, the government has doubled down on public education, advocating kindness and urging people to offer help to disabled people they may see.
But some consider that view just as alienating because it doesn’t recognize the right of disabled people to live life just like everyone else, said Ryoji Hoshika, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo.
“The image people have of the disabled is as if they’re not human — those who try really hard and have super-achievements, and those who can’t do anything at all,” said Hoshika, who himself is visually impaired, warning that the Paralympics could just reinforce this view by showcasing only the elite athletes.
“There still isn’t any really clear consensus within society on dealing with the disabled — and given this, hosting the Paralympics in a shallow way risks side-effects,” he said.
For Kita, who often looks at fellow train passengers and thinks his children might have been that age, anger remains strong.
“I just can’t stand the way the nation’s handled things. They sterilized me, then now they say ‘oh, we don’t know anything,'” he said during an interview in his narrow, dark, Tokyo apartment.
“An apology is not enough. What I want to say is: give me back my life.”