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Sapporo woman fought for 'diverse society' in call to abolish eugenics law 24 years ago

Yuho Asaka recalls attending the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, in Sapporo's Nishi Ward, on April 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

SAPPORO -- In September 1994, then 38-year-old counselor Yuho Asaka traveled to an international meeting in Cairo, Egypt, in her wheelchair on a mission: To request the abolishment of Japan's eugenic protection law (1948-1996).

Two years later, the Sapporo resident's call was answered and the law was revised into what is now the Maternal Health Act, eliminating the lawful forced sterilizations of those with disabilities, mental illness and hereditary disorders. "There is no one born believing in eugenic ideas," says Asaka, now 62. In a wheelchair due to bone fragility that she was born with, Asaka continues to hope for the realization of a society that embraces diversity.

The gathering Asaka attended in Cairo was the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, which discussed individual rights to make one's own decision about sex and reproduction. Asaka was the only member of Japanese NGO Women and Health Network with a disability who attended the conference, and she implored them to let her attend and call for the abolition of the law -- telling the story of her friend who had been forced to undergo sterilization surgery. Asaka appears to be the first person with a disability to call for the axing of the eugenics law at an international gathering, and the next day, she made the front page of the local paper and was covered by the media worldwide. Asaka even met with then-Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, the father of current Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and told him that having such a discriminatory law was an embarrassment.

Asaka was born in Fukushima Prefecture in 1956, during the height of eugenic surgeries. Soon after birth, she was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Up until the age of about 15, she had already broken her bones about 20 times. Whenever the word "disability" would be mentioned during her classes in school, she would become keenly aware of her condition. "I didn't like the fact that I felt uncomfortable about being disabled," she says.

From the time she was a child, whenever she saw the "eugenics protection law designated doctor" sign hung at obstetrics and gynecology departments, she felt discrimination exists. She learned from a book that in the opening text of the eugenics protection law, it was written, "to prevent the birth of poor descendants." Among the list of illnesses that were the target of the forced sterilization surgeries, there were also ones similar to hers. She was struck by the fact that "the very existence of the life of someone with a disability was not permitted by law," and she attempted to take her own life.

But everything changed for Asaka when she was 19 years old. She encountered campaigns run by others with disabilities, and says, "I began to think that we should change laws and society together. Support from those without disabilities was also a huge factor."

A year after the conference in Cairo, Asaka learned that she was pregnant. She worried if her frail bones would be able to take the stress of childbirth, but a female doctor whom she trusted encouraged her, "If you don't have the child, you will regret it later." In May 1996, Asaka gave birth to her daughter. Even her mother-in-law who at first had recommended abortion gave her strength. The eugenics protection law was revised a mere one month after the birth of her daughter.

While her daughter also has brittle bone disease, she did not have to grow up like her mother seeing "eugenic protection law designed doctor" signs, and now at 21 years old, she is studying to become a social worker at a university in New Zealand.

While the barbaric forced surgeries have become a thing of the past, prenatal testing that can decide whether a child is chosen to be born or not is spreading. Asaka believes that this is still the strong grip of eugenic ideals that still linger in society, and it fills her with anger.

Since a Miyagi Prefecture woman in her 60s became the first to file for compensation from the central government over her forced sterilization under the law in January of this year, moves to take similar legal actions have started to crop up all across the country. "I hope the cases can be the spark for us to thoroughly rethink eugenic ideas and create a society that celebrates and supports diversity," Asaka says.

"If eugenic ideas aren't taught later in life, then they shouldn't be there at birth," she says with a smile. "That is my hope."

(Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Hokkaido News Department)

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