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Stealing voices and dreams: Miyagi facility ex-worker recounts eugenic sterilizations

Koichi Miyake wonders what happened to the girl that underwent forced sterilization surgery, in Sendai, on April 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

SENDAI -- "After that third-year junior high school girl was forcibly sterilized, she went almost completely mute," 81-year-old Koichi Miyake recalled from his over 30-year tenure from 1960 as a staff member at a facility for children with intellectual disabilities here.

Miyagi Prefecture recorded the second-highest number of forced sterilization surgeries in Japan -- 1,406 cases -- under the now-defunct eugenics protection act (1948-1996), and stands out nationally as having the majority of those surgeries carried out on minors. Miyake told part of this story to the Mainichi Shimbun.

The facility was established by the Miyagi prefectural feeble-minded children welfare association (disbanded in 1969) for the purpose of "spreading eugenic ideals and raising the quality of prefectural residents," and the promotion of the surgeries for the young children admitted there was called the "100,000 prefectural citizens' love movement." At the time, Miyake was in his early 20s, and began working as an instructor in the boy's ward roughly two years after the facility opened.

The children at the facility would attend a special needs school nearby while living in the one-story wooden facility dormitory. There were a total of roughly 80 students ranging from elementary to junior high school students. All of them had been diagnosed with "feeble-mindedness," the term at the time for intellectual disabilities, but in reality, most of the children had really been admitted due to poverty or family circumstances.

"Many of the kids were really smart. If they had just been raised in the right environment, they would have been able to lead regular lives," recalled Miyake.

Miyake taught judo to the children, and there was one third-year junior high school girl who came to call him "Popeye." With a large stature and an energetic personality, she acted as the leader of the girl's ward, mediating bullying and fights between students. Her determined expression in her eyes when she told Miyake that she wanted to get married when she graduated left an impression, and like the other students, he felt no indication that she had mental or intellectual disabilities of any kind.

During the summer Bon festival and New Year holidays, many of the children returned to their homes. However, the girl stayed at the facility. When she let it slip that she had no idea why she was being kept there, Miyake thought it hard to imagine what the girl's circumstances really were.

Then one day, the girl didn't show up for dinner at the cafeteria. When Miyake went to her room to check on her, she screamed at him to not open the door. She continued to cry alone. Eventually she revealed that they had forcibly "taken away her ability to get married" with a sterilization surgery.

The surgery was performed without consent, and for the first time, Miyake's eyes were opened to the reality of the situation inside the facility. He heard from other co-workers that other girls had also been sterilized. After her own surgery, the lively girl Miyake knew barely spoke at all. She graduated just like that.

The organization that established the facility wrote in a pamphlet from the time that the surgeries were conducted on the admitted children "upon receiving consent." However, many of the students were like the girl that Miyake described without any disabilities and were forcibly subjected to the procedure.

"Many of the children who underwent the surgeries probably didn't appear to have disabilities at all," Miyake now suspects. The girl would now be in her 70s. Miyake wonders what became of her. He wants to meet her again -- and apologize.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau)

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