Japan’s Parliament has agreed to provide compensation – about $28,600 per victim – to those that were forcibly sterilized under the country’s 1948 Eugenics Protection Law (EPL). Under the EPL, which was in effect from 1948 until 1996, 25,000 people were sterilized, and over 16,000 of them were performed without consent (Rich & Inoue, NYT). According to a report from the Newsletter of the Network on Ethics and Intellectual Disability, the aim of the EPL was “to prevent birth of inferior descendants from the eugenic point of view, and to protect life and health of mother, as well.” The concern with the post-war population boom was one of the factors that led to the legislation, as was the desire to prevent a “‘deterioration’ in quality of offspring.”
Ultimately, the law permitted physicians to perform sterilizations (often forcibly) on individuals as young as nine years old who were deemed unfit to reproduce due to certain disabilities. This categorization of people was based on a list of diseases considered hereditary, like schizophrenia, muscular dystrophy, and epilepsy, but also for things such as “abnormal sexual desire,” “remarkable criminal inclination,” “rupture of hand [or foot],” or “mental deficiency” that was not hereditary. EPL also led to the rapid and widespread increased use of abortion as a family planning method, as it provided requirements for abortion that were very liberally interpreted by medical professionals, making it “easier for a woman to avoid an unwanted child in this way than to have her tonsils removed.”
Many Japanese activists, like Katsunori Fujii, the chairman of the Japan Council on Disability, believe that the apology and promise for compensation are not only long overdue but also insufficient (Rich & Inoue, NYT). The forced sterilization of so many individuals – of which only a small percentage have been identified – is a grave violation of human rights, an extreme intrusion of personal dignity and privacy. This eugenicist mindset, by not only allowing sterilization and abortion but promoting them, created a hierarchy of human worth. This hierarchy still permeates Japanese society today, as “people with disabilities are often hidden from view, and there is still a taboo around mental illness” (Rich & Inoue, NYT). Ironically, the EPL – which was concerned with the “threat” of overpopulation – is also one of the factors that has contributed to the alarming demographic crisis in Japan today, where “annual deaths have outnumbered births since 2007…[and the] fertility rate has been below replacement levels since the 1970s…” (Kato, The Japan Times).
According to an archived New York Times article from 1964 called “Japan’s Birth Rate – The Trend Turns,” the beginning of population decline was a direct result of the EPL. The article reads: “the result of the eugenic program has been that Japan’s birth rate has been cut in half….Dr. Minoru Tachi, head of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Institute of Population Problems, believes that the low birth rate, and the increase in the number of older persons will force several desirable changes.” The article finishes by praising Japan as a leader in the non-Western world for recognizing the population problem as “the most pressing and serious of all problems” and for taking steps to address it. The authors are right about one thing: the population problem would, 55 years later, be one of its biggest problems.
As the social and economic future of Japan balances dangerously on the size of its shrinking population, the Eugenics Protection Law serves as a painful reminder of Japan’s attempts at limiting who should have children and who Japanese society should be composed of. Disability activists argue, with good reason, that apologies and the compensation are too little, too late: too little for the victims of forced sterilization, too late for the children who were supposed to be born. And let’s not forget: too late for the debilitating effects of the population shrinkage to not be felt.