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Forced sterilization victim in Japan urges gov't to admit responsibility during appeal

A member of the plaintiffs' side holds a piece of paper with messages of support written on it, in Sendai's Aoba Ward, on Jan. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

SENDAI -- One of two women who effectively lost a damages suit in May 2019 against the Japanese government over its forced sterilization under the now-defunct eugenic protection law, opposed the lower court decision in her first appeal hearing on Jan. 20, saying she "didn't know about the law, or that Japan was conducting illegal acts, even at the time."

The woman in her 70s from Miyagi Prefecture filed her lawsuit seeking 38.5 million yen in compensation with the Sendai District Court in May 2018 under the alias "Junko Iizuka," after another woman in her 60s from the same northeast Japan prefecture filed a similar suit. The cases were later merged.

The lower court rejected both claims on May 28 last year, stopping short of recognizing the government's responsibility based on factors including the statute of limitations for illegal practices, which stipulates the right to demand compensation ends 20 years after an illegal act.

Iizuka said she "has been feeling down" since the ruling. She was divorced for not being able to have a child, and the sorrow triggered mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. For Iizuka, who has repeatedly thought of killing herself due to the treatment, it's baffling why the government is not held accountable.

On May 31, the plaintiffs filed an appeal with the Sendai High Court. In response to the district court ruling, the legal team tried to bring up the statute of limitations as a point of contention by arguing, "The victims' right to seek compensation has not ended." Meanwhile, the government demanded the appeal be dismissed.

In the Jan. 20 hearing, the plaintiffs' side stressed the fact that "the victims could not objectively recognize the illegality of the sterilization surgery," as it was legitimate at the time, and the government had approved of deceiving people into receiving the surgery.

They also argued that the period of limitations for demanding compensation should commence from Feb. 16, 2017 -- when the Japan Federation of Bar Associations described the eugenics law as unconstitutional -- which, according to the plaintiffs, "is the first time the illegality of the damages became apparent." The government, however, said the period should start from the day the women underwent surgeries.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs' side showed examples of Supreme Court decisions and stressed that even if the period was counted from the day the women underwent surgeries, restrictions should apply to the statute of limitations in a case where an illegal act goes remarkably against justice and fairness. But the government insisted that the restrictions "only apply if the offender's act makes it objectively impossible for the victim to exercise their rights," and do not apply in this case.

Due to her unfortunate background, Iizuka was forced by a local welfare commissioner to enter Komatsushima Gakuen, a facility for children with intellectual disabilities in the prefectural capital of Sendai. After graduation, she was taken to a clinic by a person commissioned to provide vocational and other guidance to help people with intellectual disabilities integrate themselves into society. Iizuka, 16 at the time, was then anesthetized and received sterilization surgery without knowing.

She only came to realize that the surgery was carried out under the eugenic protection law (1948-1996) after reading a letter she received in 1997 from her father. Until that point, Iizuka had felt resentment against the local welfare commissioner and the person commissioned to provide vocational and other training to her, but decided to sue the government after coming to know that the surgery was part of a national policy.

"Because the government refuses to acknowledge its responsibility, I continue to feel resentment, and my symptoms are getting worse," Iizuka complained. She says she continues to feel pain in her lower abdomen as a side effect of the surgery. She added, "I hope for the government to properly acknowledge its responsibility in court."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau)

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