Eugenics and forced sterilization by Japanese doctors has created a media storm. Photo: iStock

It had sinister shades of the stark “Nazi Racial Hygiene” program of compulsory sterilization rolled out by Adolf Hitler’s administration in Germany more than eight decades ago.

Three years after the full horror of this “eugenics experiment” was exposed following the liberation of concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe, such as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, Japan enacted a similar policy.

Under the “Eugenics Protection Law” of 1948, at least 25,000 people were sterilized because they suffered from mental or genetic illnesses, the Japanese media have reported.

Nearly 17,000 are believed to have undergone surgery without their consent, including a Japanese woman, who is suing the government in the first case of its kind.

Claiming she was forcibly sterilized as a teenager because of her “intellectual disabilities”, she is seeking compensation after her basic human rights were infringed.

“Thanks to the law, my sister has really suffered, living her life hidden away,” the plaintiff’s sister-in-law, who helped prepare the suit, told a news conference earlier this week.

Now, in her 60s, the unnamed woman from Miyagi prefecture, which is north of Tokyo on the east coast of Honshu island, is seeking ¥11 million (US$101,000) in damages.

In court documents, she said she developed mental problems after having surgery for a cleft palate when she was a child.

Forcibly sterilized

At 15, she was diagnosed with an “intellectual disability” and was forcibly sterilized in 1972, the Japanese media reported, again quoting court documents. As a result of side-effects, she had her ovaries removed and never married because she was unable to have children.

“We wanted to stand up and build a society where even people with disabilities can have a happy life,” the plaintiff’s sister-in-law said.

The depth of the problem was illustrated when Mainichi Shimbun, one of the major newspapers in Japan, reported that children as young as nine were forced to undergo the procedure.

Lawyers are now calling for other victims to come forward to pressure the government to accept responsibility.

Successive administrations have refused to apologize or provide compensation for those who suffered under the “Eugenics Protection Law”, which was eventually scrapped in 1996.

Indeed, this case has simply highlighted a dark chapter in Japan’s post-World War II history with the Health Minister, Katsunobu Kato, declining to comment. He told reporters he was unaware of the details surrounding the case although his ministry would launch an investigation.

“The government is prepared to have talks individually with those who need support, but [we] have no plans to offer blanket measures [to all victims of forced sterilization],” a health ministry official in charge of the issue later told AFP news agency.

In 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that Japanese victims should be compensated. “Specific measures aimed at providing all victims of forced sterilizations with assistance to access legal remedies [are needed],” the UN stated. “[The government should] provide them with compensation and rehabilitative services.”

‘Difficult for victims’

Records of 2,700 people who were sterilized under the old law were found in local Japanese governmental archives, the Kyodo News Service confirmed last week. But that number is barely 10% of the overall total.

“It [is] extremely difficult for victims to come forward and talk about their ordeals, as they would be forced to face the agony of recalling the surgery,” Tomoko Yonezu, a member of DPI Women’s Network, told Kyodo News Service.

Even today, people with disabilities still suffer shame and stigma in the country despite a 2016 anti-discrimination law. In fact, that was brought into sharp focus when 19 severely disabled people were killed at a care home near Tokyo in the same year while they were sleeping.

Satoshi Uematsu, who was later arrested for one of the worst crimes in recent Japanese history, had previously threatened to “obliterate” disabled people.

“Japan as a whole must comprehensively review the problems of the eugenics law and the underlying discriminatory views to [offer] redress [for] those affected and for the sake of the society itself,” said Yoko Matsubara, a professor of bioethics at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

She stressed that a similar discriminatory ideology was at the root of hate speech, which is “often seen” in Japan.

But the sister-in-law of the woman who is suing the government over the “Eugenics Protection Law” went even further. She felt very little had changed in Japanese society since the policy was consigned to the trash bin of history more than 20 years ago.

“The ideology that people with disabilities should be eliminated and should not be alive has remained,” she said.