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Editorial: Tokyo court inconsiderate in rejecting damages suit over forced sterilization

The Tokyo District Court has rejected a damages suit filed by a man who was forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct eugenics protection law.

The ruling acknowledged that although the man didn't fall under the law, he was illegally forced to undergo sterilization surgery, which infringed upon the freedom to decide whether to have a child as ensured by Article 13 of the Japanese Constitution.

But because the man underwent surgery over 60 years ago, the court rejected his damages claim by applying the statute of limitations, which expires 20 years after an illegal act takes place. It pointed out that the law was amended and sections regarding sterilization surgeries were repealed in 1996, making it possible for individuals to file suits.

But forcing sterilization surgeries constitutes a violation of human rights perpetrated under a national policy. Even though time has passed since the surgery, the state still stands responsible, and putting a time limit on damages claims causes many problems in terms of relief to sterilized eugenics victims.

Though the court applied the 20-year statute of limitations on demands for damages, it cannot be said that the ruling reflected on the actual circumstance of the victim.

In many cases, victims did not understand the circumstances that led to their forced sterilization surgeries, and some didn't even know they had been operated on. Quite a few people did not take legal action over fear of prejudice.

The Japanese government issued an apology to victims of forced sterilization just last year.

In the latest case, the court did not rule on whether the obsolete law itself was unconstitutional. It is a step back from the 2019 Sendai District Court ruling, which stated that the now-defunct law was unconstitutional.

The Japanese government had for a long time maintained a firm stance that the sterilization surgeries were carried out legally, and did not conduct investigations into actual damages nor provide compensation until recently. The state turned a deaf ear to recommendations from United Nations agencies.

Despite all of this, the latest ruling deemed that the central government and the Diet's failure to provide relief measures to victims after the obsolete law was revised was not illegal. Among the reasons the Tokyo District Court provided were that the state did not create the eugenics ideology which leads to discrimination against people with disabilities.

There is no doubt, however, that the eugenics protection law prompted discrimination against individuals with disabilities, which still runs deep in Japanese society.

Since 2018, a string of legal actions has been taken by victims across the country, and a relief law came into effect last year. But many have not yet received the lump-sum payment of 3.2 million yen each, and there is strong criticism that the amount is not enough.

The Diet has begun an investigation into how the eugenics law came into force and the actual situation of damages imposed upon victims. Unless the government and the judiciary come face to face with victims, actual relief measures cannot be realized.

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