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In the name of science: Ministry officials felt eugenics law contradictory but failed to act

"Eugenic surgeries were never once debated within our division," says a man who was a technical official at the former Ministry of Health and Welfare's mental hygiene division, during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in Tokyo, on April 26, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- In 1973, the head of the former Ministry of Health and Welfare's public sanitation bureau effectively denied that there were any grounds for performing forced sterilization surgeries under the now-defunct eugenic protection law. To paint a picture of the political landscape within the ministry at the time, mental hygiene division technical officials and career bureaucrats from the 1970s and 1980s sat down with the Mainichi Shimbun.

"Even since back then, we felt an awareness of the contradictions, thinking the law was outdated," said an 85-year-old psychiatrist who worked as the head of the mental sanitation division at the former Ministry of Health and Welfare in the 1970s. At the time, doctors who had accumulated clinical experience joined the ministry as technical officials, and the scientific basis for the eugenic protection law (1948-1996), which allowed for the forced sterilization of those with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses or hereditary diseases, was starting to be called into question.

The psychiatrist himself had been invited to join the ministry in recognition of his pioneering work developing a kind of day care to support the return of those with mental illnesses to society. During a time when there was little awareness about psychiatric treatment, the man was driven by a wish to "save those with mental illnesses who faced discrimination," and dedicated himself to the promulgation of the day care system throughout Japan. He felt that the eugenics law was "contradictory," but during his busy days at his post, he rarely gave it any thought.

The division he was in charge of also supervised the mental hygiene act (currently the Act on Mental Health and Welfare for the Mentally Disabled), which was designed to ensure that those with mental health issues could receive treatment and care. During the time he headed the division, heinous crimes and incidents, including a fire at a Miyagi Prefecture mental hospital in 1971, the arson of a bus in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward in 1980 and a 1981 random stabbing incident in the Fukagawa district of the capital's Koto Ward, occurred one after the other. Newspapers ran articles with headlines like "1 million people with psychiatric disorders at large," and called for government action on the issue. A divide opened between the health ministry, which wanted to prioritize treatment, and the Ministry of Justice, which wanted to strengthen regulations.

One 68-year-old former technical official at the health ministry tasked with handling this issue admitted that he was barely aware of the eugenics law. "I thought eugenic ideology was something from Nazi Germany," he said, revealing that he was shocked when he learned of the actual number of surgeries performed on the news. "To think that they were performing (the surgeries) back then too ..."

In 1972 and 1982, there were moves toward revising the eugenic protection law, but the majority of the debate centered on abortions. The health ministry came under fire from those on both sides of the issue, and the establishment of a "fetus article" allowing for the abortion of an imperfect fetus met with intense opposition from support groups for those with disabilities, which apparently further muddied the issue.

"Groups for those with disabilities, women's groups, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology -- they all were calling for the government to be overthrown" under the influence of the student movement, another former technical officer, 68, recalled. "It never led to any constructive debate."

From the testimonies of the health ministry's technical officials, the defective nature of awareness of the issues at the time becomes apparent:

"To think that the law itself could be wrong ..." "To change the law, immense energy is required to negotiate with other ministries and agencies. Unless there are special circumstances, it's impossible," "As your post changes after two to three years, you can't maintain responsibility for your statements," "The actual work was done at the prefectural level ..."

In this way, as everyone avoided getting involved, the issue of forced sterilizations continued to be overlooked.

In 1984, an incident in which a patient in a hospital in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, was assaulted and killed by a member of the nursing staff was reported around the world, and the Japanese government shifted its policy of isolating those with mental illnesses to a stance of "normalization" that worked to integrate them back into the local community through revisions to the law. However, even then, the issue of sex and reproduction was left untouched.

When the eugenic protection law was changed to its current form as the Maternal Health Act in June 1996, the leprosy prevention act that forcibly isolated patients of Hansen's disease was abolished. That law had undergone careful consideration within and outside the ministry for a number of years, and that process ultimately led to it being struck from the law books.

But when it came to the eugenic protection law, the status of the victims -- as well as the responsibility for their pain -- remained in the darkness, with the law's articles concerning "eugenics" -- which accounted for some 60 percent of the legislation -- vanishing.

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department, and Asako Kamihigashi, Lifestyle News Department)

This is Part 1 of a series.

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