Relatives of the victims of Japan’s former compulsory leprosy isolation policy have won a groundbreaking lawsuit recognizing the government’s role in entrenching discrimination against them. The court in Kumamoto in Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu granted compensation to 541 of 561 plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that began in 2016. Each person is expected to receive between 330,000 yen to 1,430,000 yen, for a total payout of 370 million yen ($3.4 million dollars).
Japan’s leprosy prevention law was enforced from 1907 until 1996. During that time, leprosy sufferers were forced to live in isolation across 13 national sanatoriums and two private hospitals under the government’s quarantine policy. Patients were treated like prisoners and unable to leave; there was a policy of keeping patients in holding cells to maintain order. The sanatoriums offered no medical care to patients — their sole purpose was cleansing prefectures of “impure” leprosy sufferers and “protecting” other residents. Former patients have dubbed leprosy prisons “Japan’s Auschwitz.”
The main focus of the case was whether legal remedies could be granted to relatives who were not a direct target of the policy. The case ruled that the government created social structures where families were subject to prejudice and discrimination as a result of the patient segregation policy. The judge said he hoped compensation would help families regain their dignity.
In the 1950s the children of leprosy patients were publicly labelled as “uninfected” and were separated and placed in a special elementary school. In Kumamoto, when several of the children were integrated into the main school, outraged parents held an opposition rally and erected posters with anti-leprosy slogans at the school gate, demanding the “uninfected” children be removed.
Prejudice and ignorance among communities propelled the idea that “uninfected” children of leprosy suffers were “potentially infected persons” and would eventually develop the disease. During this period, leprosy was considered extremely infectious. Although leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is an infectious disease, it is rarely spread by skin contact and is classified today as a mildly infectious disease that is now curable.
Family members applauded the court ruling, claiming it as a success in their efforts to redress former injustices. It’s the first time a ruling has made the government liable for damages suffered by victims’ families. Twenty plaintiffs were denied compensation because they were not close relatives of the leprosy patients.
Family members have spoken out about the constant struggle of being socially ostracized, including being denied education, work opportunities, and marriage. The judge ruled that victims’ direct and extended families experienced the most restrictions on their social lives, facing financial losses and the inability to form meaningful relationships. He also pointed out the government had a duty to abolish the isolation policy in line with the advancements in medicine in the 1960s and progress on human rights awareness. The ruling determined that the country’s legislative inaction in abolishing the isolation provision was unconstitutional.
Last week, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered a “heartfelt apology” to leprosy patients and their families, confirming the government would not appeal the court’s decision. In a public address, Abe admitted the former policy promoted “extremely severe prejudice and discrimination in society.” He added, “We apologize sincerely to patients, former patients, and families for the pain and suffering that they were forced to endure. I want to meet with the families to apologize directly.”
With the court advising against prolonging families’ hardships, Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto said the government will arrange meetings between officials and the relatives to implement the ruling without delay. However, with the upper house elections looming, critics of Abe say the decision to meet with families is politically motivated to win votes and would not be scheduled until after this Sunday’s election.