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The struggle for victims of the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law — which for decades compelled people with physical/intellectual disabilities or hereditary diseases to undergo sterilization surgery to prevent the birth of “eugenically inferior” children — has gone on for nearly a quarter century after its discriminatory provision was finally scrapped in 1996. If government policy under the law gravely damaged the victims’ basic human rights — as court rulings acknowledge — they deserve compensation that matches their suffering.

But the passage of time stands in the way of the victims’ pursuit of government redress for depriving them of their reproductive rights under the misguided policy. On Tuesday, the Tokyo District Court rejected a lawsuit by a 77-year-old man on grounds that his right to seek damages for the surgery performed on him without his consent in 1957 had expired due to the Civil Code’s 20-year statute of limitations on damages.

The plaintiff is among the roughly 21,000 people who were subjected to sterilization surgery — at least 16,500 of them against their will — after the eugenics law was introduced in 1948. The law was introduced in response to an acute food shortage amid a sharp population increase after Japan’s defeat in World War II. A government guideline promoting the policy stated that people could be forced to have undergo surgery through deception or the use of anesthesia.

While similar laws in other countries were repealed in the 1970s, it was only in 1996 that the discriminatory provision authorizing forced sterilization was scrapped. Even then the government didn’t offer the victims an apology or compensation until last year when legislation was enacted to provide one-off relief. The move was based on a proposal made by a group of lawmakers in response to a series of lawsuits filed by victims who finally broke their silence in 2018, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a statement of apology.

The legislation offers ¥3.2 million in uniform relief for each individual who underwent sterilization surgery under the law — an amount deemed insufficient given the gravity of the damage done. The victims and their supporters also criticized the legislation for blurring the responsibility of the government for the forced sterilization policy.

As a consequence, 24 people continue to pursue lawsuits in nine courts across the country. The Tokyo District Court’s decision this week was the second ruling in the series. The Sendai District Court ruled in May last year that the Eugenic Protection Law was unconstitutional but rejected the plaintiff’s demand for state redress.

In countering the government’s claim that the statute of limitations had expired, the Tokyo District Court plaintiff said it was impossible to file a lawsuit while the forced sterilization policy was part of the eugenic law. The court partially acknowledged that it was difficult for victims to take legal action at that time but concluded that the plaintiff could have filed the lawsuit by 1996 — when the law was amended — at the latest, thus turning down his call for damages.

Supporters of the victims and people familiar with the issue say the decision ignores the social stigma associated with the law and the forced sterilization policy, and the fear of lingering discrimination against people with disabilities, that discourages victims from coming forward and resorting to legal action. The lack of a government apology when the law was amended raises the question whether the victims were informed of their rights to promptly seek redress. A year after the law providing relief for victims was introduced, about 600 people have applied for and received compensation — a number deemed too small given that it’s estimated that at least half the roughly 7,000 people whose sterilization medical records exist are still living.

The secretariat of the Diet’s two chambers has launched a study into the Eugenic Protection Law — how it was enacted, how the forced sterilization policy was pursued and the roles the national and local governments played in its implementation — as mandated by the relief legislation. Knowing how the discriminatory law was created and enforced — and who were responsible — is necessary to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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