Photo/IllutrationPlaintiffs cheer the Kumamoto District Court ruling on June 28 ordering compensation from the central government to family members of former Hansen's disease patients. (Mahito Kaai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KUMAMOTO--The district court here handed down a landmark ruling June 28 that blamed a wide range of government ministers and lawmakers for failing to take action to prevent the spread of discrimination against family members of patients diagnosed with Hansen's disease.

The Kumamoto District Court ordered the state to pay 376.75 million yen ($3.5 million) in compensation to more than 500 plaintiffs who filed a mass lawsuit in 2016. They had individually sought a sum of 5.5 million yen.

The district court said the government's segregation policy against Hansen's disease patients "created a social structure that led (family members) to face prejudice and discrimination from the majority of the population, triggered damage created by discrimination and prevented the formation of family ties."

It said even those plaintiffs who may not have been recognized as having experienced discrimination still suffered a common damage by having to bear the psychological burden and fear of possibly being discriminated against in marriage and in finding jobs.

After the ruling, the plaintiffs released a statement calling on the government not to appeal the verdict. They also signaled their hopes of having discussions with the government about compensating family members of former Hansen's disease patients who did not join the lawsuit.

Former patients had sought and won compensation from the government in 2001. However, nothing was done about family members who faced discrimination because they were related to someone with the disease. A total of 561 plaintiffs eventually joined the latest lawsuit.

The compensation requests for 20 plaintiffs were rejected because their damage was determined to have occurred after 2001.

The court ruling found fault with a number of Cabinet ministers for failing to take action to prevent discrimination against family members.

It said that welfare ministers should have brought the segregation policy to a halt by 1960 at the latest because advances in medical treatment negated the need for it.

They were also faulted for failing to implement measures to remove prejudice and discrimination against the family members.

The court said that after the Leprosy Prevention Law was abolished in 1996, the welfare ministers had an even heavier responsibility to do something about removing discrimination, given that nothing was done for so long.

It also said they acted illegally by not doing anything until 2001 since the court ruling awarding compensation to former Hansen's disease patients was not contested.

The latest ruling for the first time also faulted the justice and education ministers for negligence between 1996 and 2001.

It said the justice ministers failed to fulfill their obligation to implement measures to heighten awareness about human rights as one way to combat prejudice and discrimination against family members.

For the same period, the education ministers were faulted for doing nothing to implement programs in schools and elsewhere to educate the public about the need to end discrimination.

Diet members were also blamed for failing to strike the segregation provisions in the Leprosy Prevention Law between 1965, when it became clear the segregation policy was a violation of the Constitution, and 1996 when the law was abolished.

The 94-year-old head of the plaintiffs group was living proof of the discrimination faced by family members of former Hansen's disease patients.

Chikara Hayashi went so far as to change his family name after his father entered a national sanatorium for patients when Hayashi was only 13. Neighbors began avoiding Hayashi and his mother while children began calling him names. They temporarily moved to Tokyo to get away from the prejudice.

Even after Hayashi began working as an elementary school teacher, his father's presence continued to haunt him. He fell in love with a colleague but that relationship was broken off after someone came to his home and asked his mother about his father.

Increasingly feeling his father was more of a nuisance than anything else, Hayashi began telling people he had died when Hayashi was still a child.

He eventually married and had a daughter, but he kept his father a secret from her as well. As a result, his father, who died in 1962, never laid eyes on his grandchild.

Hayashi only came to realize the evils of discrimination when he became involved as a teacher with children who came from districts associated with burakumin, the descendants of feudal-era outcasts who have faced a long history of discrimination.

"When I saw the surprising brightness of those people who had struggled against discrimination, I became ashamed of myself for having kept hidden for so long the presence of my father," Hayashi said.

He became involved in the Buraku Liberation League and in 1974 published a book in which he disclosed that his father was a former Hansen's disease patient.

While he admitted that it had been a long legal struggle, Hayashi said he was pleased at the extent to which the latest ruling went.

"I believe this ruling will have a positive effect on the human rights situation in Japan," he said.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hisatoshi Tanaka and Momoko Ikegami.)