Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe apologizes on July 24 to family members of former Hansen's disease patients who were involved in a lawsuit seeking compensation from the state. (Takeshi Iwashita)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 24 met with family members of former Hansen's disease patients and offered his deepest apologies on behalf of the government for the societal prejudice and discrimination they suffered as well.

While Abe included an apology in announcing on July 12 that the government would not appeal a Kumamoto District Court ruling ordering the state to pay a total of 376.75 million yen ($3.5 million) in compensation to family members, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had sought a meeting with the prime minister for a direct apology.

Abe twice bowed in the meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo and ended his comments by saying, "I offer my deep, deep apology."

The plaintiffs attending the meeting often wiped away tears and thanked the prime minister.

Abe also explained what the government intends to do about those individuals who did not join the lawsuit that included more than 500 plaintiffs.

Abe said legislation would be submitted as early as this autumn to provide compensation to all family members. He also indicated the government was working to set up a forum for discussions with family members about what should be included in the legislation.

One of the plaintiffs who met with Abe, Harumi Oku, 72, said she wanted to trust the prime minister's promise to make every effort to come up with a bill that would satisfy family members.

"I shed tears when I realized we had finally come to the meeting with the prime minister," she said. "I made eye contact with him on a number of occasions, and he listened intently to what we had to say."

At his own news conference on July 24, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "The specific measures regarding compensation as well as how to eradicate the discrimination and prejudice (suffered by the family members) will be considered as soon as possible through the discussions with the family members in the forum."

In explaining why he decided not to appeal the district court ruling, Abe touched upon his role in 2001 when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not appeal a district court ruling that recognized compensation for former Hansen's disease patients.

"Eighteen years ago, I was involved in the issue as deputy chief Cabinet secretary," Abe explained. "This time, as prime minister, I felt that we could not further extend the indescribable suffering that all of you experienced. I decided to accept the district court ruling in the belief that the government had to fulfill its responsibility."

Chikara Hayashi, 94, the head of the plaintiffs group, said the decision not to appeal "provided us light at the end of the tunnel."

However, after the meeting, Hwang Gwang-nam, 63, a deputy head of the plaintiffs group, said that the true nature of the apology would be measured in the legislation the government has in mind for a new compensation system.