Photo/IllutrationLawyers and supporters of a woman in her 60s walk into Sendai District Court in late January to submit a lawsuit seeking compensation from the central government for a forced sterilization decades ago. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Compensation for victims of forced sterilization may finally be on the horizon after lawmakers met March 6 to form a cross-party group to push for broader support measures for the many thousands affected.

The move follows the filing in January of a lawsuit, the first of its kind, by a woman in her 60s for compensation from the central government over her compulsory sterilization at the age of 15.

Among the first steps to be taken by the new group is to hear directly from victims of compulsory sterilization and to call on the central government to undertake a national study to establish a baseline to determine who should be compensated.

The postwar Eugenic Protection Law aimed at "preventing the birth of inferior offspring" enabled authorities to sterilize individuals with intellectual and other disabilities without their consent.

The law that came into effect in 1948 was scrapped in 1996 when it was revised and renamed the Maternal Health Law.

To date, no government programs have been implemented to provide support for the estimated 16,475 individuals across Japan who underwent forced sterilization.

The passage of time also raises the logistical problem of finding records of those subjected to the procedure.

The new group to be headed by Hidehisa Otsuji, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a former health minister, has about 30 lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Otsuji told reporters afterward, "We hope to have answers after we hold in-depth discussions on the issue."

A document on the background to forming the group explained that the suffering of the victims cannot be allowed to continue any longer.

"There is a need to protect their dignity as individuals and to consider support measures to allow for the recovery of their rights," it says.

Under the Eugenic Protection Law, doctors could submit applications for sterilization of individuals diagnosed with intellectual or psychological disabilities as well as genetic disorders.

Prefectural authorities then evaluated the applications, and if approval was granted, the procedures were carried out.

The provisions for forced sterilization were done away with when the Maternal Health Law took effect, in part because of criticism that the old law ignored the rights of those who were sterilized.

Compensation and an apology have been offered in other nations such as Germany and Sweden that operated similar programs. The Diet has looked into the question of compensation in Japan as well, but nothing emerged from the discussions.

After the end of forced sterilization, the government took no steps as it argued there was nothing improper as the procedures were legal at that time.

The filing of the lawsuit in the Sendai District Court by the woman in her 60s in Miyagi Prefecture was apparently the catalyst that got politicians to sit up and take notice.

Mizuho Fukushima, a Social Democratic Party member who serves as secretary-general of the group, said, "Up until the court case, it was difficult for victims to raise their voices and get a social movement going."

Another reason may be the realization that past examples of similar movements produced tangible results.

Lessons could be learned from a Kumamoto District Court ruling in 2001 that ordered the central government to pay compensation to former Hansen's disease patients for forcing them into isolation to undergo treatment.

The prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, decided not to appeal the ruling after lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition camps demanded a political decision.

Lawmakers eventually pushed through legislation that included compensation to the former patients.

Similarly, in 2007 after a lawsuit was submitted by those infected with hepatitis C due to infusions of tainted blood products, then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda decided the best course was to provide official compensation to all victims in line with a request for action from lawmakers.

A number of prefectural governments have also begun taking steps to confirm past records of forced sterilization and release the documents.

However, many of those efforts have been stymied by problems of identifying all the individuals.

In Aichi Prefecture, for example, officials confirmed that 255 individuals underwent the procedure, although records kept at the old health ministry had 28 fewer entries. Also, the names of 55 individuals were found among the documents related to the prefectural assessment entity, but it is not clear if they all were sterilized.

In Hyogo Prefecture, 294 individuals were apparently sterilized, but prefectural government officials said all documents had already been discarded.

Koji Niisato, the main lawyer for the woman from Miyagi Prefecture who brought the first lawsuit, said: "The responsibility for ignoring the issue should not be forced onto the victims. I hope a proper framework for support can be established."

(This article was written by Nozomi Matsukawa, Keishi Nishimura and Seiko Sadakuni.)