When an old list of individuals with leprosy who resided in Nagano Prefecture went up for auction in February, local authorities had no legal recourse to prevent the sale. 

The ledger-like document, put on sale through the Yafuoku (Yahoo! Auction) site, shows the results of “a survey on leprosy patients and their family lines” in the prefecture during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Concerns rose that since the patients’ addresses and names were included on the ledger, its public release could generate a new wave of discrimination.

Nagano Prefecture was notified of the auction by Yutaka Fujino, a professor of Japanese modern and contemporary history at Keiwa College in Niigata Prefecture. 

The prefecture confirmed the report’s cover bears such phrases as “Meiji 32,” “Omachi Police Station” and “for permanent storage.”

The list includes not only the patients’ names and addresses but also their birthdates and other details.

The document was put up for auction by a secondhand bookshop in Saitama Prefecture on Feb. 13. As no one appeared to purchase it, the sale ended on Feb. 18. The Web page was deleted on the night of the same day.

The Yafuoku operator said the decision was made to delete the page because “the product was determined as inappropriate from a comprehensive perspective.”

According to Fujino, who is knowledgeable about the history of Hansen’s disease, the former home affairs ministry in 1900 conducted nationwide research on the disorder. It aimed to examine the circumstances of a total of 30,359 patients.

The study’s findings provided a foundation for the 1907 introduction of the first legislation to isolate those suffering from Hansen’s disease that is known as “law No. 11 about leprosy prevention.”

The patient list was likely prepared a year before the state survey, so Fujino speculated that it is “a report submitted by police to Nagano Prefecture as part of the national research.”

“The material represents discriminative and other views of police and administrative bodies on patients with Hansen’s disease in the Meiji Era,” said Fujino. “The patients’ addresses and names are included in it, and leaving the document sellable or readable would constitute a violation of human rights by itself.”

Hidenobu Yanagisawa, head of the prefecture’s human rights and gender equality division, described the auction as “unacceptable.” He noted that “prejudice and discrimination against the disorder still remain.”

A private party purchasing the record could have led to abuse of the rights of the patients’ descendants, but neither the prefectural government nor police had any records or documents connected to the ledger. In addition, it was legally impossible for them to forcibly confiscate the document.

The prefecture asked the used bookseller to donate the ledger to it, but the request was rejected. Because of that, all the local government could do was ask the store “not to sell it.”

Jinken Center Nagano, a nonprofit organization for protection of human rights, reached out to the Hansen’s Disease Association for the People, a citizens group based in Osaka, to seek assistance at the prefecture’s request.

The association in March reached an agreement with the document’s owner, which reportedly “wanted it to be kept by an organization working toward settling the issue” linked to leprosy. It took ownership of the ledger after compensating the bookstore for the document’s procurement cost.

The citizens' group is expected to set up a panel jointly with human rights organizations in Nagano Prefecture, the national council of the residents of leprosy sanatoriums and other entities to decide how to deal with the sensitive information.

“We will look for advice from those involved and experts to determine how to keep the material and the place where it should be kept,” said Ko Kurube, secretary-general of the association.


What steps should be taken when records that could result in discrimination are sold through online auction services accessible to many people? A similar problem was previously reported over the Jinshin Koseki family registries.

Jinshin Koseki was Japan’s first national family register system, started in 1872. As it shows citizens’ social statuses and criminal records, the documentation was used inappropriately to determine whether individuals came from ostracized “buraku” communities at times of marriages and employment.

The Justice Ministry issued a notification in 1968 to ban the material from being read or left available for viewing. Municipalities and regional legal affairs bureaus are obliged to keep Jinshin Koseki in cases so even officials in charge cannot see them.

A document seeming like Jinshin Koseki, though, went on the auction block in Yafuoku in 2019 and was purchased for 130,000 yen ($1,173). The Justice Ministry asked Yafuoku to cancel the sale, allowing the Shizuoka Legal Affairs Bureau to take possession of it for free.

However, the 1968 notice would not prove helpful in the latest case, because it covers only Jinshin Koseki and gives no parties legal rights to recover personal data coercively.

On top of that, no records relating to Hansen’s disease had been previously improperly auctioned, so Nagano Prefecture had no choice but to appeal to the seller’s conscience.

“Showing the discriminative document online and auctioning it like at this time could both exacerbate discrimination and can be called socially improper,” said Yoshihiro Sato, a professor emeritus of socio-informatics at Musashino University, who is well-versed in issues involving the internet and human rights.

Sato pointed out that such materials cannot be deemed as illegal or recoverable due to the lack of a law on how to deal with discriminatory documents.

European nations have legislation to prohibit distributing and showing documents that could fuel racism and hatred so that those acts can be punished as crimes based on lessons learned from the Nazi genocide of Jews.

“Online service providers should voluntarily work out standards to respond to discriminative documents in an integrated fashion, but more ideal is that the government will introduce a law to address the issue.”

(This article was written by Kanako Tanaka, Yuki Kitazawa and Senior Staff Writer Ryuichi Kitano.)