Photo/IllutrationA hut where Tomitoshi had been locked in for 13 years since 1952 in northern Okinawa's main island (Kyosuke Yamamoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion

For 13 years, Tomitoshi lived locked in a windowless hut in the northern part of Okinawa's main island.

His only connections to the outside world in the 5-square-meter and 2-meter-high concrete shed were a slot for receiving his meals through, five holes of about 10 centimeters in diameter and a groove in the floor where his excrement could flow out.

He lived under those inhumane conditions from 1952 until he was reportedly hospitalized in 1966. Tomitoshi died at age 89 in July 2017.

Confining the mentally ill was banned by law about 70 years ago so that existing sheds are extremely rare today.

But Okinawa, which didn’t revert to Japanese control until 1972, is an exception. Tomitoshi’s hut still stands and is one of many that recall a time when it was legal to confine the mentally ill on the grounds of a private house.

Local volunteers have started to take action for preserving such sheds to utilize them as an opportunity to think about what mental health care should be.

Tomitoshi, whose surname remains unpublicized, started to suffer from delusions and auditory hallucinations from around his 20s when he was working as a carpenter.

He had been confined to the shed after an uproar that ended with police involvement when he was found roaming around with a kitchen knife in his hand.

“(Tomitoshi) is required to be kept in confinement for security reasons”--an application for house confinement read.

His family lived in the main house on the premises, and his mother carried his meals to Tomitoshi.

A former senior co-worker, carpenter Zenji Fukuchi, 91, recalled the day when he visited the hut to check on his junior fellow.

Tomitoshi told Fukuchi that he “felt lonely” and pleaded with him to let him “out of the hut,” Fukuchi said.

Tomitoshi’s younger brother, 73, also recalled his feelings, saying, “I felt sorry (for my brother) but I came to regard that sort of thing as normal because there had been similar huts in the neighborhood.”

Locking up the mentally ill in huts on the property of private homes was introduced by a law on confinement of people with mental illnesses that came into force in 1900 when there was a lack of public facilities for people with mental disorders.

Under the law, the government gave approval for confining the mentally ill after the family made an application.

Details about Tomitoshi remain unknown, but he finally left the hut in 1966 to be hospitalized. After being discharged from the hospital, he lived alone and stayed at a facility for the elderly in his later years.

According to a book titled “Isei Hachiju-nen Shi” (80 years of history of medical system) issued in 1955 by the health ministry, more than 7,000 people with mental illnesses were confined inside sheds across the country in 1935.

“Confinement of the mentally ill in a shed lacked consideration for human rights and the medical care was insufficient,” said Akira Hashimoto, professor of history of mental health at Aichi Prefectural University. “The wretched treatment for the mentally ill worsened their negative image.”

Confinement of the mentally ill in huts was banned by a mental health law that went into force in 1950.

However, it had been a legally and socially accepted practice under the Ryukyu mental health law in Okinawa, which had been under the control of the United States following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II until 1972, when Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty.

“Such sheds exist only in Okinawa, which is the only place in which the history of having the mentally ill locked up in sheds can be handed down to the next generation,” Hashimoto said.


Some people have started taking action to preserve the huts.

The Okinawa prefectural federation of mental health and welfare associations in May demanded that the prefectural government preserve the sheds, contending that “living reminders of those who had their dignity impaired should be preserved and utilized as an opportunity to think about what mental health should be.”

Last year, a woman diagnosed with a schizophrenic disorder and found to have been locked in her house, was discovered frozen to death in Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture.

In Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture, a disabled 42-year-old man was found to have been incarcerated in a wooden cage at a prefabricated facility next to the main house.

Toshio Takahashi, 65, the head of the federation, sees a clear connection between such past practices and mental health care today.

“Confinement of the mentally ill was largely the result of society’s prejudice and the lack of understanding of people who suffered such disorders,” said Takahashi. “Society’s lack of understanding isolates the mentally ill and their families. The huts that testify to the history of confinement of the mentally ill on private property could be a reflection of today's society.”

In July, a photo exhibition featuring images on the confinement of the mentally ill was held in Ishigakijima island of Okinawa Prefecture. About 50 photographs taken by a Tokyo-based psychiatrist in 1964 in Okinawa were showcased at the exhibition, thanks to the efforts of freelance TV director Yoshikazu Hara.

Hara, who resides in Okinawa, gained possession of those photographs from the psychiatrist and convinced those in the photos and others involved with the huts to let him use the images in the exhibition.

Hara said he remembered a stabbing spree that killed 19 residents at a home for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2016, in which the victims’ names were not released.

The TV director didn’t conceal the faces and names of the people in the photo exhibition because he thought that they “would be buried in the darkness of the history the more they were made anonymous.”

Over the years, Japan has hammered out measures to ensure that mentally ill people live in their communities instead of being sent to hospitals.

Hara and Takahashi are considering holding an exhibition throughout the country in the hopes of making others aware of how people with mental illnesses are living in their communities and if these communities are making them feel comfortable enough to ask for help when they need it.