Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized Wednesday to family members of former leprosy patients who suffered under the government’s past segregation policy.
“I deeply apologize as prime minister and representing the government for the pain and hardship you were forced to endure for a long time in your precious life,” said Abe, bowing in apology, at a meeting with family members at his office.
“The government as a whole will work with you toward eradicating discrimination and prejudice,” Abe said.
The meeting came after the government chose not to appeal a court decision ordering the state to pay a total of about ¥376 million ($3.47 million) in damages to 541 of 561 plaintiffs in a suit at the Kumamoto District Court.
Chikara Hayashi, 94, who led the plaintiffs in the damages suit, said the government’s decision not to appeal the ruling gave the family members hope.
Hayashi urged the government to step up efforts to change inaccurate perceptions about leprosy, which is now curable, through education. It is “difficult” to dispel the sense of discrimination in society, Hayashi said. Leprosy is also called Hansen’s disease.
Hayashi, whose father was placed in a sanatorium in Kagoshima Prefecture when he was a sixth grader in elementary school, said he had suffered discrimination since then.
“My mother and I changed our name and led a life on the run,” Hayashi told Abe at the meeting. “Please imagine our suffering, having to continue hiding a member of the family.”
Abe promised that the government would work to compensate the plaintiffs and also their relatives who were not involved in the lawsuit.
“It is a step forward,” Hayashi told a news conference held at a parliamentary building after the meeting.
“(Abe’s apology) was a blessing,” said Hwang Gwang Nam, 63, deputy head of the plaintiffs’ group. “But we won’t be sure whether the apology is sincere until we see what kind of a compensation system will be established.”
Many patients were isolated in sanatoriums under a decades-long government policy between 1907 and 1996, and their relatives faced discrimination.
Japan has already set up a compensation system for former leprosy patients themselves, and in 2001 then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized for the country’s segregation policy.