In 1948, the Eugenics Protection Law came into effect in Japan, giving doctors the authority to sterilize individuals who were deemed at risk of producing “poor-quality descendants.” Though records from the 48 years that the law remained in place are scant, it is thought that the legislation led to the sterilization of around 25,000 people—at least 16,500 of whom did not give their consent to the operation, according to the Japan Times. Now, in the face of recent lawsuits, the Japanese government has apologized for the sterilizations and offered monetary compensation to the victims.
On Wednesday, the upper house of the country’s legislature unanimously approved a bill that offers 3.2 million yen (around $28,500) to each victim, regardless of whether or not they were reported to have agreed to the sterilization procedure. The individuals have five years to claim their compensation, with applications subject to approval by a board of experts. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe also issued a statement apologizing for the government’s role in the forced sterilizations.
“During the period the law was in effect, many people were subjected to operations that made them unable to have children based on their having a disability or another chronic illness, causing them great suffering,” Abe said, per the BBC. “As the government that carried out this law, after deep reflection, I would like to apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
After World War II, the sterilization policy was passed “in the name of building better citizens for the nation” Keiko Toshimitsu, a bioethics researcher and the leader of an activist group supporting victims of the policy, told Reuters’ Elaine Lies last year.
Many of the people targeted by the law had physical or cognitive disabilities. Some simply displayed behavioral problems. People with leprosy were also subjected to sterilizations because susceptibility to the disease was believed to be hereditary; today, the condition is called Hansen’s disease and is known to be a curable infection. A patient’s consent was not required for the procedure if a eugenics board approved them, which often happened after a “cursory review,” according to Lies. Many of the victims were in their teenage years or younger.
The number of sterilizations peaked in the 1960s and ’70s—“[T]here was rapid economic growth so [the government] needed people born who could keep the growth going,” Toshimitsu told Lies—and the last procedure was performed in 1993. The eugenics law was revoked three years later.
In 2018, a woman in her 60s became the first person to sue the government over the law. Known in the press as Yumi Sato—a pseudonym, to protect her privacy—the woman was sterilized at the age of 15 due to a diagnosis of “hereditary feeble-mindedness,” the Guardian’s Daniel Hurst reported last year. Her family maintains that her condition was not hereditary, but was instead brain damage caused by too much anesthesia administered during a childhood surgery.
According to the BBC, around 20 victims are currently involved in lawsuits against the government. Kikuo Kojima was among those to take legal action. In an interview with Jenni Henderson and Drew Ambrose of Al Jazeera, he said that he was rendered physically disabled by polio and told that he had schizophrenia—though to his knowledge, he was not formally diagnosed. Kojima said he was admitted to a hospital, subjected to electric shocks, beatings, starvations and, ultimately, sterilization.
“People with disabilities ... we all have the right to live,” he told Henderson and Ambrose. “They stripped us of this right.”
The Japanese government initially dragged its heels in the face of demands that it accept responsibility for the sterilizations, arguing that “the procedures were carried out in line with the parliament-backed law of the land,” writes Hurst. And though the government has now accepted culpability, some victims plan to continue seeking additional damages.
“The government hasn’t dealt with it properly for the past 20 years, which makes me feel irate,” said one of the plaintiffs, now in her 70s, according to the Japan Times. “I want the prime minister to apologize before my eyes.”