TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan on Friday enacted a law to enable compensation payments of up to 1.8 million yen ($16,600) to be made to family members of leprosy sufferers who experienced discrimination and prejudice under the country's past regime of segregation.
The law states that the government and the Diet "deeply apologize" and show remorse to the family members for their hardship. Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is now curable but many patients were forced into isolation in sanatoriums under a law that was in place between 1907 and 1996.
Japan launched a compensation scheme nearly two decades ago for the leprosy sufferers but it did not cover their family members.
The new law comes after the government gave up an appeal of a court ruling earlier this year that ordered the state to pay the compensation.
Under the law, family members of those with leprosy such as parents, spouses and children are eligible for 1.8 million yen in compensation. Brothers and sisters can receive 1.3 million yen and payments are expected to begin in late January.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by both ruling and opposition parties, cleared the House of Representatives on Tuesday before its passage through the House of Councillors on Friday.
The total number of people eligible for compensation is expected to be around 24,000, costing the government about 40 billion yen.
Lawyers for the family members in the lawsuit welcomed Friday's enactment of the law as a "major step forward."
"The law addresses many of the limitations in the June ruling of the Kumamoto District Court and we highly appreciate it as a major step forward in resolving the issue of the family members' suffering in a comprehensive manner," the lawyers said in a statement.
"We are keenly aware of the need to create an environment in which not only the plaintiffs but also many other family members who did not join the lawsuit can also be covered by the law without feeling worried," the lawyers said. "We will make all-out efforts to that end."
In 2001, a Japanese court found the government's segregation policy unconstitutional. Junichiro Koizumi, who was prime minister at the time, apologized to former leprosy patients.
But it was not until July this year that the first official apology was made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the family members for their suffering.
After the government decided against filing an appeal, a Kumamoto District Court ruling that ordered the state to pay a total of about 376 million yen in damages to 541 out of 561 plaintiffs was finalized in July.
The order said the state must pay between 300,000 yen and 1.3 million yen per person.