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20 prefectures find no sterilization victim names under eugenics law: health ministry

The Mainichi Shimbun's reporting on the forced sterilization surgeries conducted on disabled people under the now-defunct eugenics protection law won the 2018 fiscal year's Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association Award. (Mainichi)

Lawmakers are deliberating relief measures for those who were forced to undergo sterilization surgery under the now-defunct eugenics protection law (1948-1996), but with just 12 percent of the approximately 25,000 people believed to have undergone surgery identified according to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare probe in which local governments were asked to dig up records, a rocky road lies ahead in building a framework for redress that reaches victims who have not been identified.

    "This is the result of those in positions of power failing to address the issue for 20 years after the law was changed," said Koji Niisato, the head of a legal team representing plaintiffs suing the central government in the Sendai District Court for compensation on grounds that the operations violated their human dignity ensured by the Constitution, in a scathing criticism of the health ministry's paltry probe results.

    In its latest investigation, the health ministry compiled reports submitted by physicians and records of surgeries left at local governments. Of Japan's 47 prefectures, names of people who were forced to undergo sterilization surgery were not found in 20 prefectures. Of those 20 prefectures, the governments of eight, including Tochigi, Osaka and Kumamoto, said they could not even find records of surgery application numbers or actual surgery numbers. It is believed that the records were destroyed according to ordinances dictating how long administrative documents must be kept.

    Records have been especially difficult to locate for cases in which people ostensibly consented to the surgery. According to the central government's statistics, 8,518 people who gave their consent underwent sterilization operations, but the identities of those people are still unknown. The health ministry posits that unlike "forced" sterilization surgeries, which required applications and approval from administrative bodies, records of surgeries in which pro forma consent was given by those who received surgery may not have been kept because there was not much involvement of administrative bodies.

    Ever since the eugenics law was changed in 1996, people have called on the central government to pay reparations to victims of forced sterilization surgeries. There is no denying that government bodies have been slow in dealing with the preservation of related records. "We had no clear grounds for asking prefectural governments to save the records," a senior health ministry official said.

    Still, the digging up of victims' names did progress at some local governments, with the Miyagi Prefectural Government and the Hokkaido Prefectural Government identifying 900 and 830 people's names, respectively. In Ibaraki Prefecture, where Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa said in March that the prefectural government had been unable to find any documents identifying individual names, a civic group's hunt for records touched off a search for documents kept at a prefectural history museum, where the names of victims were discovered.

    How to deal with the 3,033 people whose names have been found in the records so far has yet to be decided. Some in a nonpartisan parliamentary group working on the issue have said that the 3,000-plus people should not be notified, considering the possibility that some victims may be living their lives without having told family members and others about having undergone sterilization surgery.

    In response to such suggestions, attorney Niisato argues that the government should take a more proactive approach. "All elderly people with disabilities in Japan should be alerted to the fact that they may have been subjected to sterilization surgery. And in cases where it seems likely, officials from administrative bodies should directly interview the possible victims. Safeguarding privacy is important, but the government must not use that as an excuse to be passive in its investigations."

    Keiko Toshimitsu, an expert on the eugenics protection law and a visiting researcher at Ritsumeikan University's Research Center for Ars Vivendi, pointed out that the central government's investigation was a mere call for local governments to make an effort to find documents without any penalties for not doing so. Therefore, she said, "there were differences in the levels of enthusiasm with which prefectural governments searched for records, and there are doubts about the findings' accuracy." She continued, "Just because authorities cannot identify specific individuals, it doesn't mean that victimization didn't take place. The issue should have been handled more proactively and with more flexibility, taking into account such things as declarations from the victims themselves, interviews of parties involved, and surgical scars."

    In its probe, the health ministry also looked for documents related to appeals on approvals given by prefectural governments for forced sterilization surgery, a system the central government had cited as a basis for how human rights were protected under the eugenics protection law. No prefectural government, however, was able to find any records of such an appeal ever being made. What they found instead was a spate of records that showed that victims were not told of the appeals system, or that they had been forcibly "convinced" into undergoing the procedure.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare places weight on records pertaining to the appeals system because in response to criticism that the forced sterilization surgeries were a violation of human rights, it cited the existence of the appeals process to justify the sterilization program. In Hokkaido, however, a number of records documenting how the parents of people with disabilities targeted for sterilization surgery were "convinced" by authorities from public health centers and other public bodies were found in a series of investigations.

    A health ministry official also admitted that they had been unable to find any documentation on victims using the appeals process. In addition, the Chiba Prefectural Government, which until now had said that there had been three cases in which victims had used the appeals process, amended the number to zero.

    While both a working group comprising the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito, and a nonpartisan parliamentary group working on the issue agree that victims for whom official records of forced sterilization cannot be found should be eligible for redress, identifying surgical scars is an imperfect science, and not having any documentation makes for an almost impossible task. The nonpartisan group is considering a bill that incorporates an apology from the Diet and the government. Some in the ruling coalition agree with such a move, but others in the ruling coalition working team do not, maintaining that the surgical procedures were lawful at the time they were carried out, and that an apology would lead to calls for reparations by the state. As any decisions would affect the multiple lawsuits that are ongoing around the country, the prime minister's office will undoubtedly have to get involved.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada and Ryosuke Abe, Medical Welfare News Department; Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau; Takuya Yoshida, Mito Bureau; and Ryoko Tadokoro, Hokkaido News Center)

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