National

Japanese health ministry draws outrage for 'inconsiderate' poster on terminal care

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

The health ministry’s attempt to use comedy to encourage people to discuss hospice care options with their families in advance fell flat with the public and was criticized as being in poor taste, prompting its withdrawal.

The poster, released Monday, was meant to promote a government-led initiative on advanced care planning dubbed jinsei kaigi (life meeting). Advanced care planning encourages people to have discussions with family members and doctors about what kind of treatment or care they would like to receive before they become unable to make those decisions for themselves in the final stage of their lives.

The poster features Kazutoyo Koyabu — a comedian belonging to renowned entertainment agency Yoshimoto Kogyo — frowning as he lies on a hospital bed with nasal cannulas inserted. In purple characters, a message expresses his regret that he did not have such conversations with his family earlier and that he wishes he could have stayed at home with his family rather than being confined to a hospital bed.

Yoshimoto Kogyo produced the poster at the request of the government.

“Rather than listening to my dad’s unfunny jokes at the hospital, I wish I could have relaxed at home with my wife and kids,” it reads. “Oh gee, I wish I said so sooner! Everyone, please have a life meeting before ending up like this.”

After its publication, the health ministry said it received complaints that the poster is hurtful for patients as well as their family members and suspended its distribution to local governments Tuesday.

“As someone who is in the position of supporting cancer patients on a daily basis, (the poster) makes me furious,” said Miho Katagi, who represents Smiley, an ovarian cancer patients support group, in an open letter to the health ministry. “Have you thought through what patients, who are struggling with their treatment or feel they don’t have much time left, would feel when they see the poster?

“Also, have you thought through what grieving families, who feel they should have spent more time talking with the patients, would feel?”

Following the retraction, the health ministry is now considering new ways to promote the initiative, said Yuka Sugiyama, an official at the ministry’s health policy bureau.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato said at a Diet committee Thursday that the ministry takes criticism toward the poster seriously, Kyodo News reported.

Not everyone was indignant about the poster, however. Hiromi Todoroki, the director of a nonprofit group representing scirrhous gastric cancer patients, said she is grateful that the ministry decided to suspend distribution of the poster in response to criticism.

At the same time, the poster raised awareness about the program, said Todoroki, who lost her husband and father-in-law to cancer and her mother in a fire, and starting that conversation is more important than the nature of the poster.

“Some surviving family members feel regretful about how they cared for the deceased no matter what they did,” she said. “If they just look at the poster, they may feel they failed. … I think there are no good or bad ways to look after the patients. Having the conversation, I think, is important.”