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Ex-Hansen's disease patient barred from school graduation in Japan gets diploma 75 yrs on

Haruhei Ishiyama, right, poses with principal Miwako Nihei after receiving his elementary school diploma, in the city of Shizuoka on June 1, 2023. (Mainichi/Kazuki Mogami)

SHIZUOKA -- An 87-year-old former Hansen's disease patient who was severely discriminated against as a child and was unable to attend his elementary school graduation ceremony has finally received his diploma, 75 years on.

    Haruhei Ishiyama was handed the certificate in the city of Shizuoka on June 1. Recalling the disadvantages that he had suffered due to his illness, he expressed his happiness at finally being able to graduate.

    "I had thought I just had to accept (the discriminatory treatment). Now I want to live my life with this as encouragement," he said.

    It was a lecture in October last year that opened the opportunity for Ishiyama to graduate.

    Haruhei Ishiyama, right, receives his elementary school diploma from principal Miwako Nihei in the city of Shizuoka on June 1, 2023. (Mainichi/Kazuki Mogami)

    "The only graduation certificate I have is from driving school. I haven't graduated from elementary school," Ishiyama said at the gathering. One supporter, Ikuno Ito, 64, was stunned by his words.

    With Ito's help, they inquired about Ishiyama's schooling with the Omaezaki Municipal Board of Education in Shizuoka Prefecture, but were unable to confirm his enrollment. However, based on statements made by his classmates at the time, officials were able to confirm that he had been enrolled, and he was included with those graduating from Omaezaki Daiichi Elementary School in the 2022 academic year.

    Ishiyama was born in the town of Hamaoka, now part of the city of Omaezaki, in midwestern Shizuoka Prefecture. Around his fifth year of elementary school, he noticed something was wrong with his body. Even when washing his face with cold water in the middle of winter, his hands didn't feel cold. In the summer of his sixth year in school, his father took him to a hospital for a checkup. There they learned that he had Hansen's disease, which paralyzes the peripheral nerves, and causes skin sores and physical deformities.

    Ishiyama's teacher heard about his condition after the school holidays, and lashed out at him in front of his classmates.

    "You've got a dirty illness. Don't touch anything at school," the teacher ordered him. Poking him with a bamboo pointer, the teacher forced him out of the school.

    "I didn't know why I was being treated like that," Ishiyama recalled. He was banned from coming to school and was unable to attend his graduation ceremony. For four years after that, he lived at home, hiding in a storage room.

    When he turned 16, Ishiyama entered a sanatorium in Shizuoka Prefecture, and thanks to the treatment there, he was completely cured several years later. He went on to marry facility worker Kinuko, three years his junior, and they had three children.

    Ishiyama later became a plaintiff in a state compensation lawsuit, arguing that the now repealed Leprosy Prevention Law was unconstitutional. The plaintiffs won the case in 2001, and since then he has continued to speak out about his ordeal, using his real name.

    "There aren't any former patients who speak this openly about their past," Ishiyama said. "Most of them have already died, and my generation is the last."

    On June 1, the principal of Omaezaki Daiichi Elementary School, Miwako Nihei, handed Ishiyama his graduation certificate, and he received congratulatory messages from Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu and friends.

    Basking in a celebratory mood, Ishiyama looked upon the graduation certificate he had finally received with a radiant expression.

    (Japanese original by Kazuki Mogami, Shizuoka Bureau)

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