The 1948 Eugenic Protection Law followed the examples of similar systems used by Western countries in the early part of the 20th century.
Introduced against the background of Japan’s rapid population growth right after World War II, the law was aimed at preventing births of eugenically inferior offspring.
It authorized sterilization of those with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders or hereditary illnesses even without the consent of the people affected or their families.
While some of the countries that have since scrapped their laws have apologized to and provided compensation for the victims of forced sterilization, Japan, which upheld the law’s discriminatory provision until it was dropped in an amendment in 1996, has offered no apology or compensation for victims here.
Since late January, when a woman in her 60s in Miyagi Prefecture took the first legal action in this country against the past practice of forced sterilization, more and more people across Japan have either sued or are preparing lawsuits against the government for compensation.
Government steps to recognize the abhorrent deeds committed under the former Eugenics Protection Law and provide relief to the victims are long overdue.
Their efforts to seek relief for their suffering through the courts will face various hurdles, however. More than two decades after the law was revised into the Maternal Protection Law and the provision on forced sterilization was dropped, most of the official records that documented the sterilizations performed under the law are believed to have been destroyed.
Between 1948 and 1996, sterilization surgery under the law is believed to have been performed on roughly 25,000 people — including at least 16,500 who underwent the procedure without their consent. Records that still exist today reportedly confirm the names of only about 3,900 such people across the country. That would mean relatively few of the victims will have official records to back up their claims in court.
In seeking to win redress from the government, the plaintiffs will also need to establish the state’s negligence in failing to provide the necessary relief.
There is also the Civil Code provision that the right to seek damages expires after 20 years — and more than 20 years have passed since the Eugenics Protection Law was amended.
The government maintains that what doctors and officials did to the victims complied with the law at the time and were therefore legitimate. The court cases are expected to be extremely lengthy.
Many of the victims are aging and will be racing against time to seek relief for their suffering. Efforts outside of the courts to expose what happened to the victims of the Eugenic Protection Law and consider possible relief for them should be expedited.
Since the issue was brought to the fore by the victims’ legal action, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito set up a joint working team to weigh relief for those subjected to forced sterilization.
Upon the team’s request, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in March called on prefectural governments as well as major cities and Tokyo’s 23 wards offices to preserve documents that could help identify people who were sterilized.
In April, the ministry said it plans to widen the scope of the probe to all municipalities across the country as well as to medical institutions and facilities for people with disabilities.
Under the Eugenic Protection Law, sterilization surgery on people with disabilities or hereditary diseases could be conducted even without their or their family’s consent based on doctors’ diagnosis and approval by a screening panel in each prefectural government.
Miyagi Prefecture says that even in the absence of official records, it will recognize people as having been subjected to sterilization under the law based on their own testimony, physical traces of the surgery and other evidence.
It is this kind of flexible approach that is needed in recognizing who deserves relief measures.
Among countries that used to perform forced sterilization on people with disabilities under a eugenics law, West Germany started providing relief in 1980 to some of those who were victimized under Nazi rule. Their number was estimated at more than 350,000.
In Sweden, where some 63,000 people were sterilized during a 40-year period through the mid-1970s, the government recognized the error of its past policy in the late 1990s and offered compensation to victims.
In 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women issued a recommendation to the Japanese government on legal steps to provide relief to victims in the country. Unfortunately that has not changed the government’s position that the actions taken while the Eugenic Protection Law was in effect were legitimate.
It’s time that the government and other parties involved reflect on the fact that large numbers of people were deprived of the right to have and raise children under the policy of “preventing eugenically inferior offspring” — and do the right thing.