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In the name of science: Societies slow to reflect on complicity in eugenics law

The building that houses the German Association for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (DGPPN) is seen in Berlin on May 30, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- "It was like always carrying a heavy weight on your back. There was a common feeling to absolutely not return to eugenics, but we couldn't question the past of our mentors and those who came before us," said the 67-year-old director of the Japanese Society of Health and Human Ecology with a sigh.

The "heavy weight" he mentioned was the fact that the society's predecessor, the Japanese Association of Race Hygiene, was behind the adoption of the citizen eugenic law (1940-1948), an emulation of the sterilization laws of Nazi Germany and the first law in Japan to tout "eugenics." This legislation later became the eugenics protection law (1948-1996), which authorized forced sterilization of people who were considered to have the risk of producing "inferior descendants." Now, over 80 years later, the society is examining its own steps to compile its view on the past practice, which now faces nationwide condemnation.

The society was born in the period leading up to World War II, when Japan was aiming to strengthen the country in the name of nationalism. Hisomu Nagai, Tokyo Imperial University biology professor who became the society's inaugural president, tried to push the scholarship of eugenic ideologies by cooperating with psychiatrists and geneticists. He referred to British genetic scholar Sir Francis Galton, the originator of eugenics, as a "great genius," and drafted a sterilization law targeting those with heredity diseases for forced surgeries in 1936, promoting the idea to Diet lawmakers.

However, following Nagai's transfer to the then Japanese colony of Taiwan, the direction of the society slowly began to change course. After the end of the war, the society transformed itself into an organization that deals with the health of all people in connection with public health and hygiene. The original members were also replaced by a new generation of scholars, and the roots of the society were forgotten.

In spring 2017, the society changed the "racial hygiene" in its name to "health and human ecology" in order to chart a new path for the group. However, 65-year-old Nagasaki University professor and society director Kazuhiko Monji remembers feeling a sense of crisis that the name change was an act of trying to forget the past.

"Those who came before us who thought of 'group health' ended up trampling on the human rights of individuals," he said. "We must be aware of the past so that we do not move in the direction of eliminating people not in perfect health from society again." The concept of health itself is open to manipulation depending on value systems, and changes based on people and the times. That is why the society is now trying to come to terms with its history.

Still, efforts like that of the organization are not progressing across similar societies in Japan. The Japan medical association of maternal protection, a designated medical association tasked with performing abortions based on the eugenics protection law, carried out the majority of forced sterilization surgeries. Concerning a survey of its role in the workings of the law, its current incarnation, the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists showed reluctance to face the truth head-on, stating, "If there is instruction from the government, we will fully cooperate, but doing so would cause confusion."

Similarly, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, who had many members involved with the submission of requests for forced sterilizations, criticized the eugenics law in 1991, when it was still in force, but has not reflected on its own complicity in the surgeries.

In 2010, the German Association for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (DGPPN) examined the involvement of psychiatrists in the sterilization surgeries and the euthanizations of some 250,000 persons with disabilities under the Nazi government, and issued an apology. While it was legal in Germany at the time, it was discovered that the brains of the victims were used as research materials. DGPPN director at the time, Frank Schneider, recognized the pain and long silence endured by the victims and their surviving families as a crime.

Under the eugenics protection law in Japan, those eligible for forced sterilization by the state was expanded to an extent beyond that of Nazi Germany, and the law continued to stay in force even while it was still questioned. As each new reality comes to the fore, a spotlight is also shone on the inaction of the scientists at the time.

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

This is Part 4 in a series.

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