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Leprosy patients' kin accept Abe's apology, plan further efforts to end discrimination

Chikara Hayashi, second from right, and other plaintiffs appear in a news conference at the Second Members' Office Building of the House of Representatives, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on July 12, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

Families of former Hansen's disease patients who suffered discrimination under a now-defunct national policy of isolating the patients have accepted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "sincere apology" issued on July 12, after the government decided it will not appeal a ruling awarding compensation to such families.

The Kumamoto District Court ruled on June 28 that the government was responsible for neglecting the issue of discrimination against former leprosy patients' families. July 12 marked the deadline for plaintiffs and the government to decide whether to appeal the ruling, but both refrained from filing an appeal and thus the ruling was finalized. Those who have been fighting hard to end the deep-rooted prejudice have opened the way for the realization of a truly discrimination-free society.

Nobuko Harada, a 75-year-old plaintiff, appeared in a news conference held in the Nagatacho district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on the evening of July 12. The resident of the western Japan city of Okayama said she was "very happy" to hear the prime minister's announcement.

Harada was just 8 years old when her father was relocated to a sanatorium for Hansen's patients. Their home was sterilized with calcium hydroxide which made the rooms become white as snow. Soon, everyone around them knew that they were the family of a leprosy patient, and her mother was forced from a job at a fish factory. The two could barely get their hands on something to eat.

In his statement, Abe promised to hold a meeting with families of Hansen's patients. "The pain and the suffering I felt during my childhood days is what I remember the most. I want the prime minister to know this," Harada stated.

Chikara Hayashi, the 94-year-old leader of the group of plaintiffs, rejoiced that Abe's statement offered the families hope of resolving the longstanding discrimination. However, he added, "To this day, there are people who are still trying hard to keep it a secret that their relatives were former Hansen's disease patients."

Hayashi, as an elementary school teacher, had put enormous effort into education for eliminating discrimination, but while doing so, felt conflicted about why he had to keep his father's disease a secret. After much thinking, Hayashi, in 1974, finally revealed that he was the son of a Hansen's patient in his book. "That's when I started a brand new life," he explained.

"People who are willing to speak (about their experiences) should speak out first. Society does not yet approve of people who had Hansen's patients within their families. We need to create a society where such people can frankly talk about having family members living at sanatoriums," Hayashi insisted.

In the June 28 ruling, the Kumamoto District Court dismissed suits by 20 individuals among 561 family members of former leprosy patients seeking damages from the government. The ruling called into account that neither the individuals nor people around them knew that they were related to former Hansen's patients until the end of 2001, when a past court ruling that ordered the state to pay damages to those who suffered discrimination under the now-defunct segregation policy was confirmed.

The plaintiffs and their legal team, however, had demanded the central government create a relief system for all people who suffered damage.

An argument against the June 28 ruling was included in a government statement issued alongside Prime Minister Abe's apology, to which plaintiffs and the legal team criticized that the government didn't understand the court decision.

Yet the plaintiffs chose not to file an appeal because the prime minister took the plaintiffs' feeling seriously. Lawyer Yasuyuki Tokuda, the co-leader of the legal team for the plaintiffs, commented, "In the statement, our feelings got accepted with sincerity. We want to create a relief proving framework as soon as possible. Though it comes with a great risk, our mind is already made up."

The government has announced a plan to adopt compensatory measures for people who took part in the trial as well as those who didn't. Tokuda emphasized that although people have engaged in many activities to end discrimination, it still remains. "We have to explicitly narrow down where the cause (of discrimination) lies, or we'll never find the answer," he said, emphasizing the need for families and the government to work together to stop discrimination.

The legal team for the plaintiffs plans to begin discussions on the recovery of families that had their lives damaged from as early as the end of July.

(Japanese original by Akira Hattori and Masanori Makita, City News Department)

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