Editorials

Relief for victims of eugenics law

More people who were forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law have begun raising their voices to call for government compensation for their suffering. Moves are afoot among lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition camps to provide relief for the law’s victims. Time is running short for such efforts, since many of the victims are aging and most of the official records of sterilization surgeries carried out under the law are believed to have been destroyed. Both the Diet and the government should quickly take action without waiting for court decisions on the cases.

Against the background of the rapid population increase and food shortages immediately after World War II, the Eugenic Protection Law was put into force in 1948, institutionalizing sterilization and abortion aimed at preventing births of what was deemed eugenically inferior offspring. The law provided that sterilization surgeries could be carried out on people who had mental disabilities or illnesses and hereditary diseases even without their and their relatives’ consent — if doctors determined that such a surgery was needed and a prefectural eugenic protection review panel approved. It was only as late as 1996 that the law was revised into the Maternal Protection Law by deleting the discriminatory clauses authorizing forced sterilization.

In late January, a woman in her 60s from Miyagi Prefecture who was subjected to forced sterilization at the age of 15 filed a lawsuit calling on the state to pay ¥11 million in damages. Her lawsuit prompted three more people — another woman from Miyagi, a man from Tokyo and a man from Hokkaido, all in their 70s — to start preparing similar legal action.

The situation prompted lawmakers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition to start calling for relief measures for victims. Opposition members in the Diet meanwhile plan to set up a nonpartisan group of lawmakers to tackle the issue. They should join their efforts to take the necessary steps, such as working out application procedures to seek relief as well as means to confirm that the applicants actually underwent sterilization, so they can submit relevant legislation to the Diet soon.

It is known that sterilization operations were carried out on some 25,000 people under the law — about 16,500 of them performed without the consent of the patient. Since the Miyagi woman filed the lawsuit, the picture of sterilization programs under the law has come to be gradually known, albeit in fragmentary ways. Hokkaido carried out the largest number of forced sterilization operations, at 2,593, and the prefectural government even set annual targets for such surgeries up until 1996. In 1956, when the number of such operations topped 1,000, it issued a commemorative booklet that emphasized the importance of “improving the quality of people.”

According to Kyodo News, official documents listing the names of 3,540 people believed to have undergone sterilization surgery under the law are kept in Hokkaido and 24 other prefectures. In more than half the prefectures, sterilization was even carried out on youths 15 or younger.

Clearly, many people’s human rights were seriously violated under the law. To prevent repetition of the same mistake, what was actually done under the law must be fully disclosed and understood. Both the national and local governments should make every effort to unearth and preserve the relevant documents. It is also important to know what officials and doctors were thinking when they acted under the law. The cooperation of people involved in the operations is needed to collect witness accounts.

In weighing the relief measures, the government and lawmakers should make sure that a lack of official records alone will not exclude some victims from relief. They should also take care so people who gave consent to their sterilization operations will not be discriminated against. Miyagi Prefecture has said that even when official records of the surgeries do not exist, people will be recognized as having been subjected to sterilization under the law as long as they meet certain conditions — that they have operation scars on their body, that they lived in the prefecture when they received the surgery, that some documents exist from which it can be inferred that the operations took place and that they can give coherent accounts of their experience.

In the face of the moves calling for relief for the victims, the government maintains the position that what doctors and officials did under the law was legitimate at the time. It should be reminded that Germany and Sweden, which also had similar laws, provided official compensation to people subjected to forced sterilization. Quick action by the government will make it clear that this nation has abandoned its eugenics beliefs.