World Leprosy Day: Leprosy sufferers in Japan are still discriminated against today
YAsuji Hirasawa will never forget the day in December 1941 when he was forcibly committed to a leper colony. “It was cold and there was a strong wind,” recalls the Japanese, who was born in 1927. With 13 years one had with him leprosy diagnosed. “We’ve been told it’s a disease that people get when they do bad things. A divine punishment,” says the now aged man in one go Video in front of school children. “We were treated like dogs and cats“.
Far from his native Ibaraki, Hirasawa was locked away in Tokyo’s Tama Zenshoen, one of 13 leper colonies known as sanatoriums. For decades he and others affected lived isolated and ostracized by the rest of the population. It was “like a prison” with no possibility of release. Men like Hirasawa were only allowed to marry if they sterilize let. If a woman did become pregnant, she had to have an abortion. Many changed their names so that their relatives would not have any disadvantages in their jobs or marriage.
Japan’s state and society have turned people like Hirasawa into lepers. Stigmatized until the end of their lives – and beyond. Although the first treatment drug had been developed in 1941, twelve years later Japan’s government had tightened a 1907 law mandating the isolation of leprosy patients. It was only abolished in 1996.
In 2001, a court ruled that the state’s decades-long policy of isolation was unconstitutional. “Finally, we were recognized as human beings,” says Hirasawa. Japan’s government then apologized and began paying support if those affected complained. But many refrained from doing so, fearing that their illness would become public. In 2019, the government decided to also compensate relatives of leprosy patients.
“Like everywhere in the world, not only the leprosy sufferers, but also their families are affected by prejudice and discrimination,” complains Nao Hoshino, director of the national one, which was set up at the instigation of those affected Leprosy Museumwhich serves as a memorial and educational site not far from the “Tama Zenshoen”.
When the isolation law was abolished, almost 5,400 people still lived in the island kingdom’s leper colonies. Many of those affected, including Hirasawa, stayed there afterwards, many out of fear of the ongoing discrimination. Others tried to reintegrate into Japanese society, but often ended up returning to the colonies. “The average age of the 927 people still living there today is 87.6 years,” explains Hoshino.
Hoshino complains that stigmatization and discrimination are social phenomena in Japan that always occur when people are exposed to health risks. People would also like this, for example Fukushima after the nuclear accident have to experience in 2011. And there was also discrimination during the corona pandemic, for example against people who had recovered from an infection.
Few of those who once suffered from leprosy are willing to talk about their past. One for whom the fight against discrimination and prejudice has become a life’s work is Hirasawa. The hope of the aged Japanese rests on the younger generation. The Leprosy Museum has linked some of its performances recorded in YouTube videos, for example in front of school children, on the museum website. There he tells of decades of suffering, enlightens and appeals to the audience, social grievances in Japan such as that widespread not only among children mobbing to end.
In addition to such lectures, there are also guided tours in some of the sanatoriums that are intended to help enlighten the population. “However, since there is now compensation for those affected, the issue is now often seen as a problem of the past,” laments Hoshino. Discrimination and prejudice are by no means out of the world. When people had to flee for fear of radiation after the Fukushima disaster, the remaining residents of the former leper colony “Tama Zenshoen” offered to take them in. “But nobody came,” says Hoshino. And when an elementary school was planning a performance by Hirasawa, parents made it a condition that he not get close to the children.
However, according to Hoshino, one of the little boys insisted after Hirasawa’s presentation on saying goodbye to the old man, who was suffering from leprosy. “I promised your parents I wouldn’t touch you,” Hirasawa said. But the little one didn’t give up. At home he will tell what bad things were done to people like Hirasawa and convince his parents. And so the old man and the boy finally shook hands. The little one was right: “The parents apologized later,” Hoshino describes the touching scene.
Encounters like this give some of the surviving residents of the former leper colonies a little hope that Japan’s society is changing. For most of those affected, however, the legal and social rethinking comes too late. Even after death, they are denied burial in their home country. “Only the smoke” from the crematoria, says Hirasawa, can return home.
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