Families of leprosy patients awarded $4.5M compensation by Japanese court

A Japanese court ruled Friday that the government's policy of segregating leprosy patients from their families long after the disease became curable was a violation of human rights.

Government continued to segregate patients long after disease became curable

Lawyer Yasuyuki Tokud speaks Friday after a court in Japan ordered the government to pay $4.5 million in damages to the relatives of former leprosy patients. The sign reads 'Winning lawsuit.' (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

A Japanese court ordered the government on Friday to pay 370 million yen ($4.5 million Cdn) in damages to the relatives of former leprosy patients over a segregation policy that severed family ties and caused long-lasting prejudice. 

Kumamoto District Court ruled that the segregation violated the human rights of the patients and their relatives.

The 561 plaintiffs demanded 5.5 million yen ($66,800 Cdn) each for financial and psychological suffering because of bullying and discrimination in education, jobs and marriage.

The court ruled that the government failed to stop the segregation until 1996, decades after leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, became curable in the late 1940s.

More than 12,000 leprosy patients were kept at 14 isolated sanatoriums across the country, and many were also forcibly sterilized. About 1,500 remain at the facilities today with their ties to families and society severed.

'Never had a happy moment'

In the ruling, Judge Kotaro Endo said Japan's parliament, through legislative negligence, destroyed the families and caused tremendous damage to their lives.

Nobuko Harada, 75, is among the relatives. She said one day 68 years ago, a group of health officials suddenly came to her house, took away her father and spread antiseptic powder everywhere. 

She said bullying started immediately. Her classmates at elementary school told her she was contagious and threw dirty rags at her. Her mother lost her job, and they lived on meagre profits from peddling seafood. After she married at 17, her husband became abusive after she told him about her father. 

"I've never had a happy moment in my life," she told NHK public television, holding a black-and-white photo of her father that she brought to the ruling. "But my heart has cleared today." 

'We had to feel embarrassed'

A 2001 court decision found the segregation policy unconstitutional and prompted government reparations, but only to former patients. Harada's father died at age 90 without hearing the ruling. 

Harada thought it was unfair that there was no pity for the patients' families, who also suffered because of the segregation. She decided to file a lawsuit in 2016, joined by hundreds of others.

"We families of Hansen's disease patients have all kept a secret. We had to feel embarrassed about our loved ones, or we acted as if they didn't exist. Some of the families had to sever their ties with the patients, or could not keep warm feelings about them," Harada said in a statement submitted to the court during the trial.

"I'm now over 70 years old, there is not much time left and I don't want to continue to be silenced.... Please allow us to live with pride and confidence." 

The plaintiffs' lawyers, in a statement, welcomed the decision to hold the government accountable for the families' ordeals. 

But they said discrimination against the families continues years after the segregation policy legally ended.