Editorials

Long overdue recognition of the damage done

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision not to appeal, the Kumamoto District Court ruling last month ordering the state to pay compensation to relatives of former Hansen’s disease patients has been finalized. The government now needs to come to grips with its responsibility for the plight of the families — whom the court determined suffered “irreparable damage” due to discrimination and prejudice caused by the state policy of segregating the patients — and take prompt steps to provide them with relief that is long overdue.

In announcing the decision to give up contesting the ruling, Abe said that “although some parts of the court decision are unacceptable, we must not prolong the hardship of the family members” of the former patients. Many officials involved in the case reportedly pushed for appealing the ruling to a higher court. Some cast Abe’s final call as a political decision. It is widely speculated that the prime minister wanted to avoid having his ruling coalition face popular criticism over the human rights issue as the campaign heats up for the July 21 Upper House election.

Irrespective of what lay behind the government’s move, the judiciary decision holding the government liable for the plight of relatives of Hansen’s disease patients — which has been left unaddressed even after the government in 2001 accepted a court ruling that its segregation policy, which continued until the Leprosy Prevention Law was finally scrapped in 1996, was unconstitutional and took steps to apologize and pay compensation to the former patients — is now final.

The government has so far dismissed its responsibility for the damage suffered by the former patients’ kin. Even after the lawsuit was filed in 2016 by relatives of the patients, which was eventually joined by more than 500 plaintiffs, the government argued that the relatives were not subject to the policy of segregation and that, while acknowledging that the policy fueled social prejudice and discrimination against Hansen’s disease, the effects of the damage done by the policy did not extend to the patients’ kin. Abe’s statement announcing the decision not to appeal the ruling did not include an apology or mention of the government’s responsibility, either.

But the district court ruling, which the government has accepted by not contesting it, underlines how segregation of Hansen’s disease patients, pursued as a state policy without medical grounds for nearly 90 years through the prewar and postwar periods, magnified the false perception of the disease as a horrible, highly contagious malady and, as a result, the relatives of patients faced discrimination in education, employment and marriage. The court determined that the damage sustained by the patients’ kin “concerned their dignity as individuals,” “could continue through their lifetime” and violated their basic human rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

The court determined that the government had a duty to put an end to the segregation policy by 1960 at the latest — by which time medical advances meant the isolation of patients in sanatoriums was no longer warranted — but instead allowed the discrimination against the patients and their relatives to continue. The ruling also dismissed the government’s position that the statute of limitations on the plaintiffs’ right to seek damages had already expired when they took their case to court — on the grounds that it must have been difficult for the plaintiffs, who do not have expertise in legal matters, to identify the state as the party responsible for their plight, until the 2015 court ruling on a similar lawsuit referred to the possibility of the government’s liability.

It is with this point in the district court ruling about the statute of limitations that the government appears to have a particular problem. Officials said the decision not to appeal the Kumamoto ruling will not affect the government’s position on other lawsuits calling for damages over past government policies, including the forced sterilization of people with mental or intellectual disabilities and hereditary diseases in a government-led campaign under the now-defunct Eugenics Protection Law to “prevent the birth of inferior offspring.”

In response to Abe’s decision, plaintiffs in the Kumamoto lawsuit urged the government to create a system that addresses the harm suffered by all relatives of Hansen’s disease patients. The full extent of the damage sustained by the patients’ kin — including their numbers — is not known. While the lawsuit involved more than 500 plaintiffs, many others are believed to still hesitate to come forward out of fear of lingering discrimination and prejudice. The first step that the government can take is to look into what the patients’ kin went through under the segregation policy and learn from its past policy mistakes.

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