The Sendai District Court ruled on May 28 that forced sterilization under the eugenic protection law (1948-1996) violated Japan's Constitution. The decision, delivered in a damages lawsuit against the national government filed by two women who had been sterilized under the law, was the first of its kind in the country.
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The court ruled that the eugenics law violated the plaintiffs' reproductive rights, thereby trampling individuals' right to the pursuit of happiness guaranteed under the Constitution's Article 13.
This decision is nothing short of epochal.
Last month, the Diet passed legislation to compensate sterilization victims, but this bill made no mention of the constitutionality of the eugenic law. The apology that topped the bill also blurred responsibility for the decades-long practice, referring only to "we" instead of explicitly mentioning the Japanese government or the Diet.
The Sendai court ruling stated that the sterilizations "have forced (the plaintiffs) to bear continuing physical and psychological pain lasting a lifetime, with no possibility of relief. The trespass against their rights was enormous." The compensation law must be revisited by the legislature.
However, the court rejected the plaintiffs' calls for financial compensation on the grounds of Japan's civil statute of limitations, under which injured parties lose the right to sue for compensation 20 years after the damage in question was inflicted. The two women in the Sendai court case were forcibly sterilized between 50 and 60 years ago.
On the other hand, there is precedent for setting aside the 20-year rule for "special reasons." That being the case, we continue to have doubts about the May 25 ruling denying the plaintiffs' demands for damages despite acknowledging that their constitutional rights had been so grossly violated.
Meanwhile, the ruling dodged admitting the Diet's responsibility in its failure to draw up a compensation law for so many years. The decision was based on the paucity of Diet discussions on reproductive rights in general, and the specific lack of any judicial ruling over the unconstitutionality of the Diet's legislative inaction.
The Sendai ruling nevertheless stated that it would have been "realistically difficult" for the plaintiffs to file damages claims before the 20-year deadline, as "being surgically sterilized is among the most sensitive pieces of private information that a person would not want others to know," and "it is extremely difficult for the victims themselves to collect objective evidence."
Many of the eugenic law's victims have disabilities limiting their capacity for judgment, and are already in their autumn years. In other words, they are people who could not make their voices heard through the layers upon layers of a system that had abandoned them.
Considering these special circumstances, we must say that the government ought to have taken active steps to provide proper redress to these victims of state power.
There are currently other lawsuits pending at six district courts across Japan demanding compensation from the government for the forced sterilizations. As long as neither the government nor the Diet admits its responsibility for these egregious violations of citizens' rights, there will be no true resolution between the victims and their country.