HIMEJI, Hyogo Prefecture--When Kaigetsu Furubayashi received a letter from a male resident at the National Sanatorium Oku-Komyoen in the early 2000s, it set the idea for a manga shedding light on leprosy sufferers in motion.

Furubayashi, a manga artist living in Himeji, had been acquainted with the man while she was working as a public official. She learned that he was leaving the sanatorium and returning to his hometown of Himeji. After he returned, he met Furubayashi occasionally and at one time, he told her that his deceased wife had lived at the Sotojima facility, the predecessor of Oku-Komyoen.

Furubayashi's four-volume manga on patients of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, has received wide recognition after its release in November last year. The story of “Mugi-ba no Shima” (Mugi-ba’s island) is mainly set in the Oku-Komyoen in Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, where former patients still live.

Most of the characters are fictitious because it was easier for her to portray. But Furubayashi decided to set the story in the real-life Oku-Komyoen because, “I wanted to leave its mark in history,” she said.

The manga begins in Himeji in 1996. An elderly woman named Mugi Uehara (Mugi-ba), who runs a barber shop next to an obstetrics and gynecology clinic after she left the Oku-Komyoen sanatorium, gets to know Satoko, a female junior college student who had an abortion at the clinic. As Satoko listens to personal stories from Mugi-ba’s past, various human interactions from the past and present start to unfold.

With no effective remedies available, Hansen’s disease had been considered incurable. In the prewar year of 1940, Mugi-ba, who grew up deep in the mountains in Himeji, learns that she has leprosy at age 17. She is forcibly segregated in the Oku-Komyoen on Nagashima, which was an isolated island at the time. Mugi-ba stays strong as she lives a difficult life in quarantine, and finds hope after she falls in love with a fellow resident and marries him. But her fate turns for the worse when she becomes pregnant, which is not allowed at the sanatorium.

Almost all of the main characters including Mugi-ba and Satoko are women, with motherhood and parent-child relationships being the consistent themes. In addition to dealing with issues surrounding leprosy, the story asks readers what family is all about.

Furubayashi, who had undergone infertility treatments, focused the spotlight on the issue of married leprosy patients forced into sterilization and abortions.

“I would like people today to consider the issue as they take it for granted that they will be able to have children if they want to.”

Particularly noteworthy is that it describes the Sotojima Hoyoin, the predecessor of Oku-Komyoen, which once stood in a sandbar of the Kanzakigawa river running across the western edge of Osaka. Standing at sea level, the sanatorium was completely destroyed by the powerful Muroto typhoon, which claimed the lives of 173 patients and 14 staff members and their families in September 1934. Those who survived the disaster were dispersed into six other sanatoria across the country before they were brought back to the Oku-Komyoen, which opened in 1938.

Furubayashi, 49, who has had interactions with sanatorium residents, spent 12 years completing the manga after she came up with the idea.

When Furubayashi thought about creating the story, she read a book written by Yukiko Araragi, who currently serves as a professor at Otemon Gakuin University and had conducted an interview-based field survey on leprosy patients. The cartoonist herself also interviewed about 20 people including sanatorium residents and those who were reintegrated into society.

She read publications at the Kamiya Library of the National Sanatorium Nagashima-Aiseien, which is also located on the Nagashima island where Oku-Komyoen stands. She also looked into documents and other reference materials related to a lawsuit filed by former patients against the state to seek damages claiming that Japan’s quarantine policy was unconstitutional.

Under Araragi's supervision, it took 12 years for Furubayashi to publish the manga after the initial conception.

In consideration of time periods in which the activities of the characters take place and also in an aim to establish a time setting where prejudice and discrimination remain more clearly present, she decided to have the story begin in 1996, the same year when the Leprosy Prevention Law, which had allowed for segregating Hansen’s disease patients, was abolished.

According to an official at the National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Tokyo, although there have been manga works that deal with leprosy including cartoons produced to raise awareness on human rights and biographical comics about people who are involved with the disease, a lengthy work of commercial manga whose main theme is Hansen’s disease is “unprecedented.”