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Proposed bill for 'speedy relief' not enough to heal wounds of forced sterilization

LDP lawmaker Hidehisa Otsuji, standing, head of a supra-partisan legislators' group that led a bill-drafting initiative to offer redress to victims of a now-defunct eugenics law, speaks at a meeting at the Second House of Representatives Members' Office Building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on March 14, 2019. (Mainichi/Toshiko Miyama)

Over a year since those who were forced to undergo sterilization surgery under the now-defunct eugenic protection law (1948-1996) filed damages lawsuits against the state, lawmakers have drafted a bill providing victims with "relief" in the form of one-time payments. The bill is expected to pass the Diet as early as April.

If the bill is passed, it will mean that the legislative arm of government -- namely a ruling coalition working team and a supra-partisan group -- will have made a decision ahead of the courts. However, huge gaps remain between the government and the victims over the payment amount, as well as the process of certifying who is eligible. Needless to say, the prospects of a complete resolution appear dim.

Hidehisa Otsuji, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker and chairman of the multiparty group that was at the center of drafting the new bill, emphasized at a March 14 news conference the need to promptly provide relief to victims. "They are getting old, so we wanted more than anything to accomplish something concrete," he said. "If we waited until we could come up with the perfect solution, we'd fail to do anything."

It is rare for the Diet to come up with a relief package before a single ruling has been handed down in class-action lawsuits brought against the state.

The drafting of the bill was carried out simultaneously by the supra-party group and a ruling coalition working team. And because their members included veteran lawmakers Otsuji and Norihisa Tamura, both former health, labor and welfare ministers, the process progressed relatively smoothly.

It is widely believed by bureaucrats that it is highly possible that the plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed against the state will lose, due to the statute of limitations for the right to sue expiring. Because of this, some lawmakers believed that relief packages could be offered more smoothly before the courts handed down their decisions.

The question of how to classify the payments to the victims remained a major dilemma. "Compensation" would imply that the government or the Diet was admitting legal responsibility, and "relief money" sounded too condescending. Ultimately, lawmakers decided on the term "one-time payment," but like the "we" that appears in the foreword of the bill, the expression leaves things ambiguous.

It wasn't until the very end that the payment amount was decided. People involved had two laws in mind: the 2001 Act on Payment of Compensation to Inmates of Hansen's Disease Sanatorium, and a law enacted in Sweden in 1999. A eugenics law similar to the one in Japan had been in force in Sweden between 1935 and 1975, and after 1999, victims were each paid 175,000 Swedish krona. As for former Hansen's disease patients, part of what they suffered under the Japanese government's quarantine policy was forced sterilization surgery. But lawmakers deliberating one-time payments for victims of the eugenic protection law all shared the view that they could not pay victims the same kind of money -- between 8 and 14 million yen -- that Hansen's disease patients received.

Amounts demanded by plaintiffs in lawsuits brought against the state over the forced sterilizations range from 11 million yen to 38.5 million yen per person. Lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties tried to find a way to increase the one-time payment amounts, but both the Finance Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry stressed that the use of public funds required a strong rationale. Ultimately, the lawmakers used the sum paid in the Swedish case as a foundation. From the multiple ways that the Swedish krona amount could be converted into Japanese yen, they took the highest -- 3.12 million yen -- and rounded it up to 3.2 million yen.

It can be said that the process by which these decisions were made indicate the limitations of what lawmaker-initiated legislation can do when the state has not admitted to the illegality of the now-defunct eugenic protection law.

"No one truly knows what the appropriate amount is to pay a person whose life has been destroyed," a member of the ruling coalition working team said. "But by showing that we want to offer a one-time payment as soon as possible, we can hopefully satisfy some of the victims."

Meanwhile, those supporting victims of forced sterilization have not been shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the proposed bill.

"The demands of the victims are barely reflected (in the bill)," said Koji Niisato, the co-head of a lawyers' group representing victims suing the state over forced sterilization nationwide.

Since January last year, the plaintiffs' demands and the evolving content of the bill have matched on only one point: the need to be flexible in identifying who is a victim, even if records of their surgeries are unavailable.

Tomoko Yonezu, 70, of a group calling for an apology for forced sterilization surgeries, pointed to the fact that the bill uses the subject "we." "To make it clear where the responsibility lies, the subject should be 'the state,'" she said, adding, "When submitting the bill, lawmakers should at least list who they mean by 'we' so that it is noted in the session minutes."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the state include both those forcibly sterilized and those forced to undergo abortions. Some whose spouses were forced to undergo the procedures argue that their right to plan and grow a family was taken away from them. This is why the bill, which limits those eligible for one-time payments to people who were forced to undergo sterilization surgeries, is being criticized as underestimating the extent of the damage inflicted.

The amount is also far lower than the sums sought by the plaintiffs. Lawyers for the complainants say that the standard compensation amounts in Sweden are lower than those in Japan and should not be used as a reference. That argument, however, was dismissed.

The attorneys have also pointed out that the organization that would be certifying victims under the bill is the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the successor organization of the very government body that promoted forced sterilizations -- and therefore would not be able to make fair and impartial judgments. While victims demand that those whose surgery records remain be contacted directly about their eligibility for one-time payments, the bill says it will rely only on PR activities. The bill sets a 5-year limit from the time the law goes into effect for victims to claim payment, but victims argue that a temporary statute is inappropriate considering how long they have suffered.

"These discrepancies arise because lawmakers are trying to pass a bill before court rulings," Niisato said.

Meanwhile, Yasutaka Ichinokawa, a University of Tokyo graduate school professor who has been blowing the whistle on forced sterilizations for at least 20 years, expressed more understanding for the bill. "Considering how long the victims had been neglected, the move toward providing speedy relief is worthy of some praise," he said.

(Japanese original by Ryosuke Abe and Hiroyuki Harada, Medical Welfare News Department; and Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau)

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