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In the name of science: Japanese psychiatry society unaware of eugenics law problems

"The problem with the eugenics protection law was not one of eugenic thinking, but rather an issue of discrimination against those with mental illnesses," explains psychiatrist Masaaki Noda at his home in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward, on May 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

KYOTO -- "We had hoped to improve treatment of those with mental illnesses, and we thought the eugenic protection law was a thing of the past. But recent reports have been shocking. We had been unaware of the whole picture," lamented a 75-year-old top official from the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, the largest such academic society in Japan, boasting 17,000 members.

At the request of a group for those with mental illnesses, the society submitted a document to the government in 1991 summarizing their opinion on revision of the eugenic protection law, under which those with disabilities, mental illnesses or hereditary disorders could be forcibly sterilized. The society's psychiatrists pointed out scientific errors and suggested the deletion of articles which were the basis for such surgeries. This followed a similar drive to change the law by a Ministry of Health and Welfare research group that raised objections to forced sterilization in 1988.

The eugenic protection law (1948-1996), which held up "prevention of the birth of undesirable descendants" as its aim, most widely targeted those with mental illnesses, basing the reasoning for sterilization on heredity. Using such terms as "hereditary mental illness" and "marked traits of hereditary mental illness (abnormal sexual desires, tendency to commit crimes)," it called for psychiatrists and other medical professionals to apply for permission to carry out operations.

Some psychiatrists, however, had already raised doubts about the necessity of sterilization surgeries when the law's predecessor, the citizen eugenic law (1940-1948), was in force. Their comments such as, "The hereditary nature of mental illnesses has not been clarified," and, "The chance that sterilization surgeries will decrease the number of cases of those with mental illnesses is extremely small," do not seem unnatural from today's perspective.

But even then, it was extremely difficult to clearly negate perceptions about mental illnesses in the prewar period with psychiatric and genetic knowledge, and once the war had ended, rebuilding a ravaged Japan was prioritized. Thus, the eugenics protection law calling for the elimination of "undesirable descendants" went into force.

In the 1960s, however, awareness that mental illnesses could be cured with the use of psychotropic medicine began to grow. Entering into the 1970s, the claims of psychiatrist Masaaki Noda, now 74, made waves. Noda, who had come to question the link between mental illnesses and heredity, introduced many studies carried out abroad to Japan, including ones that compared the onset of illnesses in twins, clearly pointing to the importance of the influence of environmental factors. Other scientists continued to make similar arguments.

Outside of Japan, medical knowledge of genetics and awareness of human rights were growing. Sweden, where forced sterilization surgeries had continued after the war, revised its legislation in 1975, and the United States also did away with such laws in the 1970s.

Now, Noda questions the failure of Japan's medical professionals to act. "The (eugenics) law made the discrimination against and elimination of people with mental illnesses an ideology," he said. "It wasn't an issue of eugenics. It was a problem with Japanese psychiatry and medical treatment."

Still, the psychiatry and neurology society overlooked the changes that were being made abroad. In the early 1970s, Japan was facing a strong student movement. The new generation calling for "reform of psychiatric treatment" secured general governance of the society, and clashed with the government over the introduction of a "security provision" that included forcibly committing those with mental illnesses to facilities for treatment in order to prevent crime.

"The society just did overly showy things, like calling for overthrowing the university medical doctor course system, and didn't fulfill its original role," stated 87-year-old Yasuo Okada, who was outspoken against the eugenics law in his capacity as a psychiatrist. He lamented that even as victims have started group lawsuits against the government in courts around Japan, and Diet lawmakers and others are considering measures to offer aid to victims, the psychiatry and neurology society has yet to come face-to-face with its own past complicity in the enactment of the eugenics law.

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

This is Part 2 of a series.

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