TOKYO (Reuters) – One day when Saburo Kita was 14, he was taken from an institution for troubled children to see a doctor. Despite protesting that his health was fine, he was ordered to strip, lie down on a table, and was given a local anesthetic.
Then the surgery began.
He was left with a thick, v-shaped scar on his lower body and questions about what had happened. Months later, talking with a friend, he learned that he had been sterilised. So had two others from the same institution in Miyagi, northern Japan.
“There was no explanation, ever,” said Mr Kita, now 75, who uses the pseudonym in media to avoid questions from his late wife’s family. “I was left with a body that couldn’t create children.”
But he did not realise until January that his surgery was part of a government programme to prevent the birth of so-called “inferior descendants” that saw tens of thousands sterilised, often without their consent, under a law not revoked until 1996.
Most were physically or cognitively disabled. But others suffered from leprosy – curable, and now known as Hansen’s disease – mental illness or simply had behavioral problems. Mr Kita had been sent to an institution for fighting at school.
Now the victims, many of whom were in their teens or younger when they were sterilised, are fighting back, demanding justice from a government they say violated their human rights. A mentally disabled woman in her 60s has sued for an apology and 11 million yen ($100,328) in compensation, and other suits may follow soon.
All could embarrass the government, which insists the surgeries were done legally, and Japan, where attitudes about the disabled still lag other advanced nations even as it prepares to host the Paralympic Games in 2020.
“Right after the war, rebuilding the country and its people was paramount, so in the name of building better citizens for the nation, the law came into effect,” said Keiko Toshimitsu, a bioethics researcher and head of an activist group supporting those who were forcibly sterilised. “It was to build a better Japan – along, of course, with prejudice against the disabled.”
“Then in the 1960s and 1970s there was rapid economic growth so they needed people born who could keep the growth going.”
An official at the Health Ministry, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, would not discuss the law or the lawsuits in detail.
“It was an operation that was carried out according to a law that was in force at the time, so we are contesting it with the stance that it is not a matter for compensation,” he said.
Though the most notorious eugenics laws were imposed by Nazi Germany, Japan is not the only nation with similar programs in peacetime. Sweden sterilised 63,000 people under a 1935-1975 programme, almost all women, in the name of racial purity.
Thirty-two US states embraced eugenics at some point, with the number of sterilisations climbing after a 1927 Supreme Court decision upholding a Virginia law. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes compared the state’s duty to sterilise a woman to the need to protect the public against smallpox with compulsory vaccinations.
But laws overseas, by and large, were revoked in the 1970s; Sweden apologised and paid compensation after media reports brought the problem to light in 1997. The US states of North Carolina and Virginia have also offered compensation.
Japan’s “Eugenics Protection Law” came into effect in 1948 as it struggled with food shortages and rebuilding a ravaged nation.
Sterilisations peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. The last surgery under the law was carried out in 1993, and the measure was revoked three years later.
Of the estimated 25,000 people sterilised during this time, at least 16,500 did not give consent – unneeded if a eugenics board signed off on it after an often cursory review. Few records remain.
Methods varied. Hysterectomies were recommended for disabled women in institutions on the pretext they couldn’t handle their menstruation. One woman born with cerebral palsy was subjected to high doses of radiation to her reproductive organs.
The reasons varied as well, in some cases going beyond the scope of the original law.
Fukushima hopes by next year to present a law proposing compensation for the victims, and lawyer Niisato expects more will come forward, emboldened by publicity around the court cases.
“The idea they were sterilised because they were disabled isn’t something anybody wants to bring up,” he said. “They were afraid that if they did, people would say ‘well, you’re disabled, it can’t be helped.’”
Though overt discrimination has fallen, attitudes toward the disabled lag those overseas, sometimes in harmful ways. In 2016, 19 people at a facility for the disabled were killed in their sleep by a man who had advocated euthanasia for the physically and mentally impaired.
With the Paralympics rapidly approaching, the government has doubled down on public education, advocating kindness and urging people to offer help to disabled people they may see.
For Kita, who often looks at fellow train passengers and thinks his children might have been that age, anger remains strong.
“An apology is not enough. What I want to say is: give me back my life.”