Japan’s courts rule in favour of victims of forced sterilisation in landmark compensation decision
After over half a century, victims of Japan’s forced sterilisation laws may finally receive justice. In February 2022, the High Court of Osaka called these laws ‘inhumane’ and awarded damages to its victims for the first time. The laws had been in effect from 1948 to 1996.
The Eugenic Protection Law resulted in the sterilisation of 16,500 people, mostly women with mental and physical disabilities. If these women happened to fall pregnant, the law also covered abortive remedies to ensure they did not give birth. A further 8000 women are believed to have consented to being sterilised , although this consent was likely given under duress. The operations did not require the consent of the women in question – only the approval of the doctors that oversaw the procedures.
Additionally, the law resulted in increased discrimination against people who had handicaps. People with leprosy were also specifically targeted by this law – thousands of victims were deemed 'polluted', placed in isolated sanatoriums and neglected. They, too, were sterilised. In 2001, Japan ruled that these actions were unconstitutional, with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologising for these actions and promising compensation for the victims.
History of eugenics laws in Japan
Japan has had a long and varied relationship with eugenics in their legal system. The Eugenic Protection Law itself was introduced after the Konoe government’s National Eugenic Law was repealed. This law specifically focused on the compulsory sterilisation of people who had inherited a mental illness, promoting genetic screening of the population. As a result, 454 people were sterilised from 1940 to 1945.
After World War II, the domestic population were introduced to ideas about the ‘purity of Japanese race’. Through this concept, people were encouraged to reproduce with parts of the population that were deemed ‘superior’. Moreover, there was an increased focus on Japanese or Shinto supremacism, with women being discouraged from wedding Korean men who worked as labourers and were adjudged to have an ‘inferior constitution’.
Current attitudes towards eugenics laws
Perhaps the historic decision reached in February 2022 is indicative of Tokyo's intent to confront and take responsibility for previous governments' human rights abuses. Until recently, the Japanese government had staunchly refused all claims for compensation regarding the sterilisations, arguing that these actions were legal at the time. This changed with the announcement of reparations in April 2019, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognised that the National Eugenic Law had caused “great suffering” to its victims. It was legislated that victims would receive ¥3.2m and an apology from the State.
This response in 2019, while being a step in the right direction, was still not enough for the victims. The compensation sought in the initial lawsuits had been ¥30m each, a significantly larger amount than the final amount given by the government. According to the lawyers of the victims, the 2019 response was unsatisfactory. Additionally, other victims who attempted to sue for more money after the decision were unsuccessful because the statute of limitations had expired for compensation claims against the eugenics law.
The High Courts decision made in February overrides the decision made in 2019 and orders the government to pay the plaintiffs a combined ¥27.5m. Such reparations have been widely accepted by the victims, who believe the payments validate their lived experiences.
What the future may hold
As of yet, it is still too soon for this decision to be seen as an historic win for human rights in Japan. It may take a long time for the victims to be compensated, which, given their age, may result in damages arriving too late for many. Furthermore, the Japanese Health Ministry is reported to be considering an appeal, with the Health Minister himself calling the decision ‘very tough’ for the government. However, the legal ratio made by the High Court of Osaka is still a strong step in the right direction. If upheld, it could have a ripple effect on future legal cases brought forward by victims of other atrocities.
Maryam Kalif is a Law and Arts student with an interest in refugee law and global gendered violence against women. Maryam volunteers at community legal clinics, and her overall ambition is to help people with her legal knowledge.