Hansen’s disease lawsuit compensation update

In the March 14 installment of Media Mix, I wrote about the new law passed last November to compensate families of Hansen’s Disease patients for the discrimination they faced and still face. As pointed out in the column, the majority of plaintiffs whose successful lawsuit led to the legislation remained anonymous even after the law was passed because, despite the fact that discrimination against Hansen’s patients was outlawed in the mid-90s and the government has admitted that its previous treatment of Hansen’s patients was wrong, prejudice against persons with the disease and their relatives persists throughout large segments of Japanese society.

On June 17, Asahi Shimbun published a feature on the anniversary of the court decision finding in favor of the plaintiffs. Most of the article was given over to an interview with the daughter of Hansen’s patients who participated in the lawsuit anonymously and who still declines to give her name or place of residence to the reporter. The piece points out right at the start that her parents, who are still alive, were isolated when they were first diagnosed and confined to a sanatarium, where they remain to this day, albeit in their own separate abode. The daughter, who is in her 50s, still does not tell others about her parents except for very close friends, of which she has very few, apparently. She emphasizes the fact that a full year after the verdict, which was widely covered in the Japanese press, things haven’t changed for her. She is still reluctant to talk about her past openly.

One of the main reasons for her fear is that internet trolls came out in force following the decision to compensate families, saying that “again, they want to get paid.” Hansen’s patients themselve won compensation in the early 2000s, and now their family members are getting money, a development the trolls find objectionable.

The Asahi article, however, adds little to this aspect of the story and mostly does what I thought the media should do about the issue, which is to contantly, repeatedly report on Hansen’s-related discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs, though in this case the repetitive nature of such a strategy shows its limitations. The woman tells her story in detail — how her parents were sent away when she was only 5, and how she was raised by grandparents who never really told her the exact truth. She was bullied in school because she “had no parents,” and when she did finally find out the full truth after graduating high school (up until then she would only visit her parents briefly during school vacations) her parents told her that she should just tell people they were in prison. The most heartbreaking part of her story involves the mother of a man she was dating who told her she would never allow her son to see her again, though it is not clear if the older woman knew her parents were Hansen’s patients. In any event, she became pregnant by the woman’s son and they married and her mother-in-law never brought up the matter again, but it still hurts the woman to this day.

As a result of the law, each family member of a Hansen’s patient receives between ¥1.3 and ¥1.8 million, even if they did not participate in the lawsuit. The fairly low amount shows that it’s mainly symbolic. The article goes on to say that as of June 5, about 5,400 individuals have applied for the compensation, of which about 2,600 have received it. However, the government estimates that about 24,000 people are eligible for the payment, and the fact that such a small portion has come forward to claim it only goes to show how powerful the fear of being recognized as a Hansen’s patient relative remains. One lawyer who was involved in the case says that, of course, there still may be many eligible people who don’t know about the compensation, which means the media’s reporting on the matter is even more important.

Anyone who is eligible or thinks they are can contact the government at 03-3595-2262, or hoshoukin@mhlw.go.jp.

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