Photo/IllutrationSupporters of the plaintiff enter the Sendai District Court in Sendai’s Aoba Ward on June 13, holding a banner demanding apology and compensation from the government for sanctioning forced sterilization. (Issei Yamamoto)

SENDAI--The district court here has ordered the government to answer the question of whether it violated the Constitution with the abolished Eugenic Protection Law that allowed authorities to forcibly sterilize even children with disabilities and other conditions.

The order came at a June 13 hearing of the first damages suit against the government for forced sterilization in Japan, filed at Sendai District Court by a woman in her 60s with an intellectual disability and who was sterilized without her consent at 15.

“The law was unconstitutional as it deprived me of the right to determine whether I should have children,” said the plaintiff, who lives in the prefecture, in the complaint.

The plaintiff is seeking compensation of 11 million yen ($99,800) in the suit filed in January.

At the hearing, the government refused to take a position on the law’s constitutionality, arguing it is not a central issue in the plaintiff’s case.

Presiding Judge Motoyuki Nakashima disagreed. He said the court will delve into the discussion of constitutionality, cited the law’s “broader impact on society,” and ordered the government to take a stand on the issue by the end of July

Under the Eugenic Protection Law, which took effect in 1948, authorities were allowed to compel people with certain conditions, such as mental disorders, hereditary diseases or Hansen’s disease, to undergo sterilization procedures without their consent.

At least 16,000 people nationwide underwent forced sterilization under the law, records show.

The law was renamed the Maternity Protection Law when eugenics provisions were removed in 1996 due to their discriminatory nature.

However, the government has not compensated any victims to date.

Lawmakers recently formed a cross-party group to address the issue following a public outcry.

The government contended in court that if victims sought compensation, they could have used the 1947 State Redress Law in the absence of any law specifically designed to deal with forced sterilization, despite never having recommended its use for that purpose before.

“It was up to Diet members to write a law aimed at relieving victims of forced sterilization, apart from the State Redress Law, but they are not legally obliged to do so,” the government said.

It added that the government itself does not have legal responsibility for drawing up relief measures, either.

Koji Niisato, head of the plaintiff’s legal team, said he was appalled by the government’s duplicity.

“Before the court battle started, the government refused to apologize and compensate victims, maintaining forced sterilization was legal back then,” he said. “Once the hearing opened, the government said the State Redress Law has been available (for victims seeking compensation to use).”

A sister-in-law of the plaintiff expressed her outrage over the government’s argument that the plaintiff could have turned to the State Redress Law for compensation at a meeting to brief on the outcome of the court hearing.

The relative said the plaintiff’s mother bitterly recounted that each time she had visited a municipal office for residence registry or other needs, employees there treated her like somebody trying to exploit public assistance.

“What brought you here to beg this time?” one of them said to the mother, according to the sister-in-law.

Such treatment had the effect of discouraging the mother from relying on public services, the relative said.

“How could we think about seeking state redress during the days when people treated us like that?” the sister-in-law said. “It is blatantly clear that the Eugenic Protection Law violates basic human rights and the Constitution.”

Three other victims in Miyagi Prefecture, Hokkaido and Tokyo sued the government over the issue earlier this year.

At least three more in Hokkaido and Kumamoto Prefecture are expected to follow suit. More than 10 others are considering legal action in Miyagi and other prefectures, according to the legal team representing the plaintiff in the ongoing case.

(This article was compiled from reports by Issei Yamamoto, Eiji Shimura and Mitsumasa Inoue.)