Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday offered an apology to family members of leprosy patients for their suffering, after the government decided not to appeal a court ruling ordering the state to pay compensation.
Making the first official apology to relatives of leprosy patients who suffered under the government’s segregation policy between 1907 and 1996, Abe acknowledged the “hard fact” that they endured “extremely severe prejudice and discrimination in society.”
“The government deeply reflects on the pain and suffering endured by leprosy patients and their family members and offers a heartfelt apology,” Abe said in a statement endorsed Friday by the Cabinet.
“I myself would like to express this feeling by meeting with family members,” the prime minister said. No date has been set for any possible meeting, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The apology is a milestone for the family members of former leprosy patients and comes nearly two decades after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized to such patients in 2001 over the segregation policy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is now curable but many patients were isolated in sanatoriums under the decadeslong government policy. Family members suffered from the stigma of being relatives of leprosy patients.
Friday was the deadline for the government to decide whether to appeal the June 28 ruling, which ordered the state to pay a total of about ¥370 million in damages to 541 plaintiffs.
The ruling was the first of its kind in awarding compensation to family members of former leprosy patients.
“The state is responsible for allowing prejudgment and prejudice. With the issuance of a statement this time, we want the government to recognize its liability,” Chikara Hayashi, the 94-year-old leader of the plaintiffs, said at a news conference Friday.
The plaintiffs said they will not appeal the Kumamoto court ruling, meaning the court’s decision will be finalized.
According to the statement, the government will pay compensation swiftly and take measures to redress families of leprosy patients, irrespective of whether they participated in the damages suit.
But the scope of those eligible for redress was not clearly defined in the document. Suga said the government will swiftly work on the compensation framework.
The Kumamoto court ruled that the state acted illegally by failing to end segregation by 1960, when the need for the policy was lost due to progress in medicine, and retaining it under the leprosy prevention law until 1996.
The ruling recognized that the government’s segregation policy made it difficult for patients’ family members to enroll in schools, find jobs and get married.
Abe said the hardship of family members should not be prolonged when he announced Tuesday in a “rare” move that the government did not plan to file an appeal.
But the prime minister rejected the portion of the Kumamoto’s court’s ruling pertaining to a three-year statute of limitations.
On Friday, the government issued a separate statement from Abe’s to clarify its stance on the court’s judgment on the statute for seeking damages, among other points.
The government says the statute of limitations period started when a compensation accord was reached between the state and leprosy patients in January 2002, and thus it had expired by the time the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
The Kumamoto court, however, judged otherwise, saying the period started in 2015 when plaintiffs became aware they could try to seek compensation from the state following a Tottori District Court ruling. The ruling in September that year rejected a damages claim by the family member of a former leprosy patient.
Japan launched a compensation system for former leprosy patients following a 2001 court ruling that found the government’s segregation policy to be unconstitutional.
The Koizumi administration decided not to appeal the ruling, which ordered the state to pay a total of ¥1.82 billion in damages to the patients.