Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Kin of Hansen's patients laud 'big step' toward ending discrimination, prejudice

A plaintiff gives a hug to a supporter who offered her a bouquet, at the First Members' Office Building of the House of Representatives, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 9, 2019. Harumi Oku, left, is seen crying with joy. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

Families of former Hansen's disease patients who suffered discrimination under a now-defunct national policy of isolating the patients are celebrating not having to hide their loved ones' disease anymore, following the government's July 9 announcement that it will not appeal a ruling awarding compensation to former patients' families.

The Kumamoto District Court ruled on June 28 that the government's isolation policy was responsible for fostering discrimination, breaking bonds between people and damaging their lives.

Finalization of the ruling is seen as a big step toward ending discrimination and prejudice. However, the plaintiffs' defense counsel is demanding that the central government go a step further, issuing an apology and urgently providing relief.

Chikara Hayashi, the 94-year-old leader of the group of plaintiffs, appeared in a news conference held in the Nagatacho district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward later on July 9.

"The government should fully commit to resolving discrimination and prejudice (against the families of leprosy patients) that it generated through its ill-conceived policy, out of consideration for the many people who have already passed away," said Hayashi, a resident of the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka.

Hayashi's father was in his 40s when he was relocated to a sanatorium for leprosy patients. He died in 1962 at age 67. Hayashi recalls being repeatedly told by his father to keep his disease a secret -- something he doesn't have to do now.

Koichi Akatsuka is seen in the city of Amami, Kagoshima Prefecture, on July 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazuaki Kanda)

"I no longer have to hide it. I want to tell him that the government has acknowledged its mistake," Hayashi said of the government's plan to refrain from filing an appeal. Alongside other fellow plaintiffs, he raised a banner that read, "Court victory set to be finalized."

Harumi Oku, a 72-year-old plaintiff, had come to Tokyo from the city of Amami, Kagoshima Prefecture, also in southwestern Japan, after the June 28 ruling and continued to engage in activities urging the central government not to file an appeal. "I thought we were just at the beginning of our fight, but the news (of the government's plan) eased the tension," Oku said as she shed tears of happiness.

Oku was just 4 years old when she was separated from her parents, and faced discrimination as a child of those with leprosy. The day the Kumamoto District Court handed down the ruling marked the 23rd anniversary of the death of her mother, whom she had once resented over their difficult life marked by discrimination. Oku said she believes her "parents are pleased" with the result.

Koichi Akatsuka, an 81-year-old plaintiff whose father was relocated to the National Sanatorium Amami-Wakouen in the city of Amami, heard about the news in his hometown. "The prime minister's decision was simply a matter of course. We have suffered for a long time and can't bring ourselves to rejoice. He should have first told the plaintiffs about the government's plan and offered an honest apology," Akatsuka said.

In 2001, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided not to appeal against a Kumamoto District Court ruling that sided with former leprosy patients who had complained of longstanding discrimination. Abe similarly announced that he plans to accept the latest ruling, but has not mentioned specific relief measures.

Yasushi Shimura is seen in the city of Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, on July 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Yusuke Hiratsuka)

On top of an apology, plaintiffs and their defense counsel are demanding that the central government create a relief system for all people who suffered damage and implement a policy to end discrimination and prejudice, including damage done to such families.

In the news conference, lawyer Yasuyuki Tokuda, the co-leader of the defense counsel, said that the finalization of the June 28 ruling "will enable a big step to be taken toward tackling a social structure in which discrimination and prejudice remain." He added, "We urge that people understand there are plaintiffs who are quietly rejoicing and others who could not take part in the trial."

Many former leprosy patients in national sanatoriums were also filled with joy with the government's plan to refrain from filing an appeal.

Yasushi Shimura, the 86-year-old president of the resident community association at National Sanatorium Kikuchi Keifuen in the southwestern Japan city of Koshi in Kumamoto Prefecture, stated, "Families have been suffering as much as former patients and I'm grateful for the prime minister's decision." He also emphasized that such people still face discrimination and that their suffering has not changed.

Shimura expressed hope for a society in which people can openly say, "My sibling was a Hansen's patient." He urged the Japanese government to put effort into human rights education.

Yoichiro Iwakawa holds a photograph of Michihiro Ko, in the city of Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, on July 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Shinkai)

Yoichiro Iwakawa, 82, serves as president of the resident community association at National Sanatorium Hoshizuka Keiaien in the city of Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, in southwestern Japan. His 74-year-old brother and 80-year-old sister joined the group of plaintiffs in the latest trial.

During his association activities, Iwakawa worked together with Michihiro Ko, the late former president of the National Hansen's Disease Sanatoria Residents' Association. He shared the news of the government's plan in front of a photograph of Ko.

"It'll be a big step toward getting rid of the the deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice against leprosy in society. This shouldn't be the end but a chance to completely resolve issues to do with Hansen's disease," he said.

(Japanese original by Akira Hattori and Yuki Yamamoto, City News Department; Kazuaki Kanda, Amami Local Bureau; Hayato Jojima, Kumamoto Bureau; and Ryoichi Shinkai, Kanoya Local Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media