Draft legislation compiled by a suprapartisan group of lawmakers to provide relief for people who were forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law falls short of holding the government responsible for their suffering.

More than 20 years after the law was amended to delete the discriminatory provision authorizing forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities, many of the victims and their relatives are aging, and most of the records of their sterilization surgeries are believed to have been lost. Prompt measures for relief of the victims, such as a lump sum payment being considered for the planned legislation, are needed. At the same time, identifying who was responsible for depriving them of the right to have children will also be important so that the nation doesn’t repeat the same kind of mistaken policy.

The Eugenic Protection Law was put into force in 1948 against the background of the rapid increase in population and shortage of food immediately after Japan’s defeat in World War II. The law institutionalized sterilization and abortion aimed at preventing births of what was deemed eugenically inferior offspring — and allowed sterilization surgery to be carried out on people with mental disabilities or illnesses and hereditary diseases even without their or their relatives’ consent (or even by deceiving them). 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. About 25,000 people are estimated to have undergone such medical procedures under the law across the country.

Since last January, when a woman in her 60s from Miyagi Prefecture filed the first-ever lawsuit seeking government compensation for being subjected to forced sterilization under the law, about a dozen men and woman have taken their cases to courts across the country. A ruling on the first case could come as early as next spring. These plaintiffs’ lawyers and supporters have called on the national government to give them a clear apology by acknowledging that the Eugenic Protection Law violated their human rights and was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Diet, including those from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition, have explored legislative steps to provide relief for the victims.

The draft legislation compiled by the lawmakers calls for a lump sum, although the size of the payment has been left for further discussions. If the proposal passes the Diet, eligible recipients would be those who were subjected to the sterilization, including those who consented in writing, but would not include their spouses. The relief program would not exclude people whose official record of the procedure cannot be found — those people will be screened by a panel of experts to be created at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The screening would include a medical examination to make sure they had undergone the operation. That will be good news for the victims since official surgical records reportedly remain for only about 2,700 people in 19 prefectures. The lawmakers’ parties plan to fine-tune the details of the legislation and submit it to the Diet next year — and hope to get it enacted before court rulings on the damages suits start to emerge.

The draft, however, leaves the government’s responsibility for the victims’ suffering unclear. The text says that “we” sincerely repent causing great physical and psychological pain to the victims and “apologize from the bottom of our heart.” Lawmakers involved in drafting the text say the “we” includes the Diet, which enacted the 1948 law, and the government, which promoted the operations conducted on the victims under the law. But the vague wording was reportedly adopted so that the legislation would not affect the court decisions on the pending lawsuits, in which the government has contested the plaintiffs’ claims. The draft legislation also does not touch on whether the now-defunct law was unconstitutional, as charged by the victims and their supporters.

In the same year the Eugenic Protection Law was revised to end the forced sterilization policy, the Leprosy Prevention Law, which mandated the segregation of Hansen’s disease patients since its introduction in 1931, was abolished. When the Kumamoto District Court in 2001 determined that the segregation policy was unconstitutional and ordered the government to pay compensation to former patients of the disease, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided not the appeal the ruling and released a statement expressing his remorse and apology for the past segregation of the patients, and a law providing compensation for the former patients was promptly enforced.

Relief for victims of forced sterilization under the Eugenic Protection Law should also be provided on the basis of acknowledgement by the government of its past policy mistakes.

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