Editorials

Relief falls short for victims of eugenics law

Under the former Eugenic Protection Law, sterilization surgeries were forced on people with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses and hereditary diseases to “prevent the births of eugenically inferior offspring” for decades in postwar Japan, until the law was amended in 1996 to remove the discriminatory provisions that enabled such surgeries even without the victims’ consent. After some victims of forced sterilization filed a series of lawsuits starting last year against the government seeking state compensation for their suffering, a suprapartisan group of Diet members recently put together draft legislation that calls for a lump-sum payment of ¥3.2 million for each of the victims who were subjected to the sterilization surgery under the defunct law.

It’s far from clear, however, whether the legislation will settle the problem. The victims and their lawyers say the draft legislation falls short of clarifying the state’s responsibility for their plight, while the size of the payment is much less than the levels of compensation they are demanding for the loss of their right to have children. While the lawmakers hope to get the legislation enacted as early as next month — before the first court ruling on the series of suits is handed down, possibly in May — the lawyers for the plaintiffs say they will pursue the legal battle, now contested by 20 people in seven district courts across the country, and charge that the proposed law is insufficient to make up for the damage they sustained under the discriminatory policy.

With more than two decades having passed since the forced sterilization law was terminated, and many of the victims and their family members now advanced in age, relief for the victims is long overdue and should be promptly disbursed. It is estimated that some 25,000 people underwent the sterilization surgery, with at least 16,500 of them subjected to the operation without their consent. However, records of the surgeries reportedly exist for only about 3,000 of them. In that sense, it is a positive development that the legislation paves the way for financial relief for victims whose surgery records have gone missing. Whether or not the claimants qualify for the relief will be determined by a screening committee to be set up by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry based on testimony of the victims and their relatives, as well as the opinions of doctors. People who are believed to have consented to the surgery will also be covered by the relief measure.

But while the proposed legislation just vaguely says “we” apologize for the plight of the victims forced to undergo the sterilization surgeries, the victims call on the government to clearly admit its responsibility for the policy and apologize. A Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who heads the ruling coalition’s working team on the issue says the “we” include the Diet, which unanimously adopted the eugenics law in 1948, and the government. In court, however, the government insists that it did not act illegally over the matter and disputes the plaintiffs’ claim that it neglected in its duty to provide relief for the victims.

The amount of the lump-sum relief money was reportedly decided by following the example of Sweden, which began paying compensation for its victims of forced sterilization policy 20 years ago, with the value adjusted to fluctuations in prices and exchange rates. But ¥3.2 million is far less compared with the ¥10 million to ¥30 million sought by each of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits. When former Hansen’s disease patients sued the government for their segregation under the former Leprosy Prevention Law — also abolished in 1996 — the government accepted the 2001 Kumamoto District Court ruling that recognized that the state’s segregation policy was illegal, and legislative steps were taken to provide ¥8 million to ¥14 million in compensation for each former patient. This time the relief measures for the victims of forced sterilization are being adopted before the judiciary hands down its decision on the issue, including on whether the forced sterilization policy was unconstitutional, as the plaintiffs claim.

Relief measures for the victims of forced sterilization should be promptly taken; their plight had already been left unattended for too long. At the same time, the government should make clear whether the forced sterilization was a mistaken policy, so the same kind of mistake won’t be made in the future. Aside from relief for the victims, the draft legislation calls on the Diet to investigate the turn of events over the issue so that similar discrimination against people with disabilities will not be repeated. The bottom line is to examine how a policy that infringed on the rights of the victims had been maintained for 50 years under the eugenics law, why it took so long for relief to be provided to them, and to clarify who was responsible for what.

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