“More than 16,500 women and men were sterilized against their will,” reads a newsletter published in 1997 by the Network on Ethics and Intellectual Disability.

Shocking. Less so now, as recent developments having made the fact familiar. Shocking all the same. How can civilization have sunk so low?

The Eugenic Protection Law under which the forced sterilizations occurred was in effect from 1948 to 1996. A law compensating victims was enacted in April, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe committed the government to “utmost efforts to realize a society in which people can coexist, regardless of disease or disability.”

Eugenics seems barbarism technologized, a ghastly perversion of everything we hold sacred. Yet its origins were high-minded.

Plato (427-347 B.C.) was its first known exponent. Its modern pioneer, the coiner of the term (from the Greek for “good birth”), was British evolutionary biologist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), who wrote of eugenics in 1869: “Its first object is to check the birthrate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit.”

“The weak,” he said, “could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods.”

The Eugenic Protection Law’s purpose was, as stated in the legislation, “to prevent birth of inferior descendants from the eugenic point of view, and to protect the life and health of the mother as well.”

The Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera showed in a report last November how that played out in practice.

It quotes a man named Kikuo Kojima: “They pinned me down, took my pants off and, when I tried to resist, they gave me an injection in my arm … the anesthetic didn’t work. It was excruciating. … I remember what the nurse said clearly: ‘Mr. Kojima, you have schizophrenia. You have a disability. People like you should not have children.'”

Some of his fellow patients, he says, were as young as 14.

Yuya Niwa, health and welfare minister from 1992 to 1993 (and again from 1999 to 2000), told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview published in August 2018, “The biggest mistake is that society as a whole was unaware that the idea was wrong.”

He himself was. “I’m ashamed,” he said, “of my ignorance of the issue.”

Sharper awareness prevailed. It came from abroad. A 1994 U.N. Conference on Population and Development raised the issue, as did the 1995 Beijing Conference on women.

Criticized internationally, Japan repealed the law. Twenty-three years later, it legislated compensation.

Morality is a strange creature. One generation’s, or one culture’s, or one individual’s good is another’s evil. The Eugenic Protection Law’s framers, and the nurse who scolded Kojima, must surely have thought they were doing good. Terrorism is good to terrorists, who see in it the only road to a better world. Those who oppose abortion and those who favor it both do so on moral grounds — the former defending life, the latter reproductive freedom.

Japan’s course in that regard has been tortuous. In 1949, it became the first country in the world to legalize abortion, bucking not only prevailing global civilized opinion but its own history: Japanese law in the 17th century called abortion “immoral in the extreme.” So it remained until the abrupt postwar reversal — which now in retrospect seems startlingly progressive.

Postwar Japan, Bungei Shunju magazine reports in its July issue, euthanized on average 1 million dogs and cats a year — pets whose owners could no longer care for them. That offends us more than it would have people living then. They had been through so much human death in the 1930s and ’40s. What did dogs and cats matter? Today, the numbers are way down — to 35,000 cats and 8,000 dogs: too high still for moral complacency, insist growing legions of animal rights activists.

In May, an Asahi Shimbun writer visited a suburb of Hanoi known for dog cuisine. It’s part of the local culture, and has been for ages. The Vietnamese say it’s great with beer, or as soup stock, together with pumpkin chunks. Nothing is wasted, boast aficionados: “From head to tail, everything gets eaten.”

Culture or not, eating dog meat has become an embarrassment in high places. It turns tourists off, say officials stirring to eradicate it, and gives the country a bad name. Pet owners, too — growing in numbers as prosperity rises — are repelled. They hope Vietnam will go the way of Thailand, which banned dog meat in 2014.

Which brings us to whaling. In June, Japan resumed commercial whaling, ending a three-decade moratorium. Outrage was global, though not universal.

“This is a monstrous violation of global norms,” Humane Society International President Kitty Block said in a statement. “In direct violation of international standards and law, Japan has opened a new and infamous era of pirate whaling.”

The “terrible truth,” said Block, is that “these gentle ocean giants are being slaughtered for no legitimate reason at all.”

Is it that simple? The Japan Whaling Association says on its website, “Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the British being asked to go without fish and chips.” But whales are more intelligent and sensitive than cows, pigs, chicken and fish, say anti-whalers. Even if true — it’s disputed — it’s beside the point, a Hindu for whom cows are sacred might reply.

When “global norms” and “culture” clash, which wins? If antiquity confers cultural status — it’s often held to — Japanese whaling qualifies.

“It is clear,” writes Japanologist Sarah Strong in her 2011 book, “Ainu Spirits Singing,” “that the people of Hokkaido have hunted whales since the Okhotsk period (circa 500-1200) and probably from the late Jomon era” (1500-900 B.C.).

Ainu culture is much admired today for its seamless harmony with nature. Strong cites an oral account from an Ainu elder of the 1930s of a successful whale hunt: “The people swarmed on the beach. The people … were enormously happy … and the elders prayed, ‘Spiritual Being of the Sea, thank you for giving us this whale. We have received oil and meat, and in return … we humbly send off the spirit of the whale, so please receive the whale.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

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