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Three Okinawans among former Hansenís disease victims to win compensation

Date Posted: 2001-06-01

A two-year-long trial questioning the legality of the governmentís segregation policy of victims of the Hansenís disease ended with the court fully agreeing with the plaintiffsí arguments. Upon hearing the courtís decision, the lawyers representing the Government decided not to appeal thus bringing the case to an end.

Thirteen former victims from Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Okinawa first brought the case to the trial in Ď98. Three of plaintiffs were former patients from Airakuen Sanatorium in Nago City and Nanseien Sanatorium in Miyako Island. Actually, the number of victims is estimated in the tens of thousands, but most of them refused to join the suit because they feared that the disclosure of their real names and possible publication of faces in publications might cause trouble to their families and relatives.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that the governmentís segregation policy that required the isolation of the Hansenís disease victims from the rest of the society, was the worst and longest-lasting violation of their human rights under the Japanese Constitution, preventing them even suing the Government at the time the policy was in force.

In their í98 lawsuit, the plaintiffs sued the Government as what they called a ďHuman Being Revival Court,Ē for compensation for their lost lives because of discrimination, prejudice and segregation

On May 11, the Japanese government was ordered by the Kumamoto District Court to pay •1.82 billion in compensation to 127 former Hansen's disease patients

Initially, some government officials suggested creating a reconciliation plan and an appeal for the courtsí decision. Officials emphasized that filing an appeal would not mean that the government did not accept the judgment. Especially, officials at the Ministry of Health claimed that the decision at the time was legal and the Ministry of Finance was also pushing the cabinet toward an appeal, as the Finance Ministry officials were wary of the possibility of having to spend large amounts of money for the eventual compensation. However, Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi, a senior member of the ruling coalition's second-biggest party, New Komeito, threatened to resign if the government decided to appeal. He strongly suggested, as his personal opinion that the government should forgo the appeal and apologize to the plaintiffs. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who made the final decision had reportedly been undecided until just before the time limit for filing the appeal.

As for the disease, even though an effective cure was developed in 1960s, the prewar segregation policy was incorporated in the 1953 Leprosy Prevention Law and was in effect until í96, for over thirty years. The image of the Hansenís disease in peopleís minds has been that of a contagious and dangerous disease. That image has not been erased yet, and people who have been unable to come back to ordinary social life after they move out the sanitariums file most court cases.

What is Hansenís disease?

Hansenís disease was formerly called Leprosy. People get infected by coming to contact with Leprosy germ. The name Hansen is the name of the person who discovered the germ.

When a person becomes infected their nerve-endings are destroyed and they lose the feeling mainly on their hands and feet, and many get injured without noticing. The disease also weakens muscles and causes numbness. The publicís image of the victimís fingers and nose falling off is completely false. The disease is not very contagious and it is seldom that adults become infected. Presently, it is 100% curable.

According to the WHO, there are about 1.26 million victims around the world and most of them live in the poor regions of Asia and Africa. Characteristically, the climate has no effect on the diseaseís prevalence but rather the low living standards and bad sanitary conditions.

Okinawa has two sanitariums and in the past most of the families of victims hid the existence of the infected often completely ending the relationship. The victims often lost all hope for life and many young people committed suicide. Besides, marriage within those living in the sanitarium was allowed but the husband had to be sterilized, and if the wife got pregnant she had to have an abortion. There were very few people who agreed to care for the victims in the sanitarium and patients lived under the watching eyes of the guards to prevent them from escaping. As a consequence, discrimination and prejudice created by wrong information caused them to be treated as non-humans whose existence within the society was terminated.

The Mainland and Okinawan media took up the case in large scale but each has a different point of view on the courtís judgment and governmentís decision. Okinawan media is focusing of what the victims have been suffering through and emphasized on the necessity of the victory. In contrary, media in the mainland reported that the court ruling was a planned by the current cabinet in order to raise the support for the Liberal Democratic Party that has been down recently.

Most commentaries say that the Leprosy Prevention Law that segregated victims without clear reasons was the fruit of the government negligence. Moreover, most former victims are becoming old and have a limited time to live on. A government spokesman stated after the ruling that ďThe fact is that we have to compensate with our taxes the expense caused by the segregation policy that was enacted using peopleís taxes at the time. The governmentís attitude from now on must be that the people will judge it according the laws they enact.Ē

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