Review: The Divine Fury

Though Korean movies still find wider distribution in Japan than do movies from other countries outside of the U.S., some Korean movies have an easier time of it than others. The fact that this occult actioner features Park Seo-jun, who stars in the wildly popular Netflix drama Itaewon Class, is probably the main reason for its being picked up. On the surface, the high-concept premise—a mixed martial arts fighter moonlights as an exorcist—didn’t hurt, but all these elements don’t necessarily blend together in a satisfactory way. Park himself often looks as if he’s not entirely sure what he’s supposed to be doing when he isn’t throwing flame balls at Satan’s spawn.

Like all good Korean action films, and quite a few non-action films, The Divine Fury is premised on revenge. As a child, Yong-hu loses his widowed policeman father after the latter is savagely attacked during a routine traffic stop, and denounces his father’s Catholicism when he realizes that this faith did nothing to alleviate the pain of losing a wife and didn’t protect him from the evil in the world. He becomes a professional fighter whose m.o. is beating his opponents within an inch of their lives in the first round, fired up by a hatred for humanity. Fortunately for him the world loves to watch this kind of thing and rewards him handsomely. He lives in a luxury condo in central Seoul and has fans the world over, but, of course, he’s never happy, and one day he develops a painful wound on the palm of his hand that he eventually come to learn is stigmata. He swallows his pride and consults Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), a have-holy-water-will-travel exorcist for hire, who tells him that due to his denunciation of his father’s faith, evil spirits are battling for his soul.

As it happens, a smarmy, ageless nightclub owner (Wu Do-hwan), contains the evil spirit that killed Yong-hu’s father, and now seems bent on taking over Yong-hu, but the movie never quite calms down long enough to make sense of the whole evil possession thing. Those familiar with The Exorcist will appreciate the script’s fidelity to the lore of demon possession—the naming of names, the transmigration of evil from one body to another, and the various tools at the disposal of the exorcist—but we never get a clear idea of how or why the nightclub guy is doing what he’s doing except that it looks like he’s having fun; and it could be a lot more fun if the first element in the high-concept theme, that of the martial arts fighter, were exploited more elaborately. As it stands, Yong-hu does more soul-searching and demon-denouncing than he does ass-kicking. It’s a muddled though nonetheless handsomely staged thriller that also lacks much in the way of campy horror, relying too much on cheesy special effects and uninspired body makeup (though the lizard-man thing at the end is pretty good). Park Seo-jun stans may be satisfied because they get a few scenes of him without his shirt on, but when plot integrity requires the donning of a priest’s collar, even that kind of fan service is compromised.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

The Divine Fury home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Lotte Entertainment

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Media Mix, Aug. 2, 2020

The new Uniqlo outlet in Harajuku

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the fall of the Japanese apparel industry as a result of the coronavirus crisis. As I mentioned, the industry was already failing even before the pandemic. The Big Three—Renown, Onward, and Sanyo Shokai—were struggling mightily and relying on foreign investment funds or partners to keep them afloat. And it wasn’t just competition from fast fashion that was eating into their revenue. Perhaps the most representative change was when Sanyo lost its license to sell Burberry, a hugely popular brand in Japan, back in 2015. The company’s fortunes tumbled and have never climbed back. Sanyo has gone through three CEOs in the meantime.

The main problem is that the culture of fashion has changed a lot since Japanese apparel’s heyday in the 70s-80s, when television and magazines were at the apex of their influence. There were so many publications—not just fashion magazines, but lifestyle publications centered on clothing—that everybody regardless of income was up on the latest trends. The rise of the internet eroded this advantage in two ways. Firstly, it diluted the power of print, and secondly, it made shopping in person unnecessary, two factors that were essential to the prominence of clothing fads in the public’s imagination. Of all the emerging post-bubble Japanese clothing brands, Uniqlo is thought to be the greatest success, but even Fast Retailing, the company that owns Uniqlo, is going through hard times right now, and was suffering even before CV-19 arrived on these shores. Though Uniqlo bucked fashion trends by selling what is essentially generic-albeit-high-quality clothing, its success still relied on people visiting actual stores, and the brand’s rise was in direct proportion to the number of outlets it opened, and not just in Japan. Fast Retailing has closed a lot of stores in recent years, mainly overseas (in China, Uniqlo’s products are still considered status items), but it did recently open a new shop in Harajuku that points to its future sales strategy, allowing customers to browse apparel on screens, “coordinate outfits,” and then “process” their purchases via their smart phones. I’m not really sure why people have to go to a store to do all this, but that’s probably why the store is in Harajuku, where window shopping is still a thing. If the concept is successful, then Fast Retailing may expand it to other outlets. Rumor has it that Amazon is coming out with its own clothing line, so Fast Retailing is obviously worried they’ll be left behind in the digitization wave.

It’s hard to imagine that more hardcore fashion lines can survive in this kind of environment, though they seem to be adapting the best they can. Another evolutionary aspect covered by the Asahi Shimbun is very small fashion houses that could be called super-niche suppliers. One that the newspaper profiled is owned and run by a 25-year-old Japanese woman who grew up in Shanghai. She once worked as a sales clerk at Shibuya 109, the mecca for young fashionistas. Her concept is simple: she wants to make the kind of clothing she wants to wear, and so carries out everything herself, from design to marketing to sales. She even does her own modeling, and it’s all digitized, not just sales (via Instagram). Most importantly, she is sensitive to trends and tastes, and only produces as much product as she can sell. Unlike conventional fashion houses she isn’t afraid of running out of inventory. If she sells out a line, that’s great, since she doesn’t have to worry about clearance sales and stocking issues. And she charges what the market will pay, which, in the case of her T-shirts, is about ¥7,000. High fashion isn’t dead, it’s just crawled into a cubby hole.

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Review: Dead Souls

Like Joseph Heller and the Notorious B.I.G., Chinese director Wang Bing debuted with a work that was so overwhelming in its originality, scope, and message that anything he would produce subsequently was bound to be anticlimactic; but like those two seminal artists, Wang has pretty much nailed his subjects consistently. West of Tracks, his nine-hour documentary, released in 2002, about the decay of China’s biggest, most ambitious industrial complex, shot seemingly in real time, wasn’t just immersive. You left the theater so disoriented that it might take several days to readjust to reality.

His newest film is equally monumental in terms of covering his chosen topic, except that the topic is more of an idea than a physical place. Dead Souls is a 495-minute deep dive into the anti-rightist campaign of the 1950s and 1960s carried out by the Chinese Communist Party, told by its survivors in their own voices. In 1956, the party launched the Hundred Flowers Movement, which encouraged members and non-members alike to frankly express their opinion on how Mao was doing. A year later, those who were against the movement—or, more likely, those whose feelings were hurt by it—gained power and reversed course. In the process they came down hard on anyone who had used the movement to criticize the party, branding them capitalist running dogs, rounding them up, and sending them off to re-education camps in the hinterlands to start life anew by essentially creating an agricultural community from scratch in an environment that was not suited for cultivation. Naturally, the vast majority starved to death, which seems to have been the point all along. How many? No one knows, not even those who survived, but despite their advanced age they all seem to remember vividly the atrocities committed against them, and their stories are riveting for both the intensity of the cruelty described and the matter-of-fact manner in which they’re described.

Wang focuses on two camps located in the Gobi Desert, a place he already knows well from his only narrative film so far, The Ditch, which dramatized a few of the stories related here. As good as The Ditch was in depicting the horror of life in those camps, it couldn’t possibly convey the enormity of the social displacement these people experienced. The movie is long because the stories are long, starting from how and why the subject was targeted by the authorities, to their “trial” (which often incorporated torture), and then to their exile. Wang sets everything in the present, careful in his insistence that he is referring to a past that would likely be forgotten if not for his herculean effort, taken at great risk to his own well-being, to make sure these stories are preserved for all time. He even interviews current residents of the area (yes, they did somehow create something of a community in this wasteland) who give an idea of where the bodies are buried, so to speak.

The movie is repetitive by necessity if not design. The camera is placed before the subject, who talks until they have nothing left to say. Though static and sometimes muddled, these interviews are punctuated by everyday activities—a wife drifting into the frame to deliver a snack, a relative dropping by and adding some clarity to a particular story—that make the movie seem more alive than if the stories had been recorded, edited, and used as voiceover. There is also an extraordinarily dramatic scene of a funeral for one of the survivors whose remains are carried up a treacherous hill in the former compound, capped by a moving elegy given by his son, whose own telling of his father’s tragic but eventful life deserves a film of its own. Taken together, these tales, and Wang’s unobtrusive way of getting them on film, has their own immersive, subversive power.

In Mandarin. Opens Aug. 1 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum in Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Dead Souls home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Les Films d’ICI-CS Productions-Arte France Cinema-Adok Films-Wang Bing 2018

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Media Mix, July 26, 2020

Taro Yamamoto

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the Tokyo gubernatorial election earlier this month. Near the end, I mention a discussion between activist-writer Yasumichi Noma and journalist Koichi Yasuda on the web channel No Hate TV. The title of their discussion was Liberal Racism, which may sound to some people like an oxymoron, but Noma was quite clear in his belief that racism underlies the entire political and ideological spectrum in Japan. His essential point, I think, is that racism, or, at least, a blinkered view of people and institutions that are not “pure” Japanese, is built into a lot of Japanese social structures, just as prejudice towards people of color and their institutions is built into so-called white culture in the U.S. The difference between Japan and the U.S. in this regard is that people who identify as liberal in the latter are self-conscious about these structures, while in Japan they only pay attention to them if someone else points it out. The far left in Japan, for instance, has always been to a certain extent anti-semitic, Noma says, trading in Jewish conspiracy theory with regards to world finance, etc. Taro Yamamoto, the leader of the left-identified Reiwa Shinsengumi party, is an avowed Emperor-worshipper, and while that in and of itself doesn’t make him a racist, there are facets of his ideology that point to an inherent mistrust of China and South Korea. Noma says that almost all the political parties in Japan “attach certain meanings to certain ethnic groups,” but since they don’t talk about it explicitly, it doesn’t register publicly. The press reinforces these prejudices by not checking them, which means they probably share those prejudices. The tabloid media tend to wear their racism on their sleeves because they think that’s how the average person feels. The mass media is simply more careful with their language. Noma characterizes this phenomenon as being “populism,” thus lumping it together with other right-wing movements in the world that work to exploit the public’s worst instincts about “others.” As Thomas Frank pointed out in Harper’s magazine several issues ago, “populism” tends to get a bad rep for that reason even though its origin in the reformist movement of late 1890s U.S. politics was a direct reaction to the intolerance and greed of the ownership class. Somehow the term has become twisted over the years. Noma’s use of the English word may be slightly misleading, since it implies that populism is a foreign concept. What he wants to say is that all the candidates for Tokyo governor were racist in some way and signal as much to their supporters and to those undecided voters they hope to sway.

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Eric Clapton, Budokan, Oct. 1997

Almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun during the same decade are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy. Continue reading

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Media Mix, July 19, 2020

Shinjiro Koizumi and eco bags

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the new rules for plastic shopping bags. As I say in the column, the rules aren’t going to make a big practical difference since shopping bags only account for about 2 percent of all plastic waste, which is now increasing due to the pandemic. The government has acknowledged this, saying that the main purpose of the rule is to heighten awareness, and in that regard, the highly visible, highly recognizable environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, is perfectly suited for the job of publicizing the rules. The Shincho article I cite in the column is actually mainly about Koizumi’s PR moves regarding the launch of the new bag rules, and it was typically unflattering about his efforts.

The title, for one thing, said something to the effect that minister’s “eco bag is empty.” The article begins by saying that the famously photogenic Koizumi hasn’t been much in the news lately since he became a father late last year, and seemed to need something to remind people that he was still around, so the shopping bag rule promotion was an easy and seemingly fool-proof way to get his face in front of cameras again, especially since, as Shincho put it, he has yet to register any kind of “achievement” as environment minister. It should be noted that he had little to do with the legislation for the bag restrictions.

From what I could gather in the main media, his PR activities came down to a public press event where he appeared with the helium-voiced TV talent and ichthyologist Sakana-kun where they rewrote a children’s song with lyrics having to do with plastic bags. He also patronized a convenience store in Nagatacho with the media in tow to show off his own eco bag, a blue plastic number recycled from tarp that had been used for cleanup purposes following the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. To give credit where credit is due, Koizumi has been using this bag since the end of last year when he carried out a similar PR stunt to drive home the idea of refusing plastic shopping bags. However, this time Shincho made careful note of what he purchased at the CS: among his purchases were several beverages in PET bottles, a plastic waste scourge that has yet to receive its own legal sanction. Doesn’t Koizumi have his own reusable water bottle or coffee cup? Where’s the ministry spin doctors when you need them?

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Review: The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

Actor Ma Dong-seok has carved an eviable niche in South Korean cinema as a kind of all-round hybrid tough guy/sympathetic everyman, thanks mainly to his turn as the working class hero of Train to Busan. He’s also a rising star in the U.S., where he made his mark as a physical trainer to American action actors and goes by the name Don Lee (he holds dual citizenship). The Gangster, et al, has been pegged by fanboys as probably his most enjoyable role, and while it’s supposedly loosely based on a true story, it’s hard not to imagine the movie was written and produced with his peculiar skills set in mind. I don’t know much about the movie’s box office in South Korea, but apparently it impressed Sylvester Stallone enough to buy the Hollywood rights and hire Ma to recreate his character in English.

Ma plays mob boss Jang Dong-su, who runs a successful underground gambling operation in the city of Cheonan. Though he seems a fairly reasonable type as mob bosses go, we meet him as he’s practicing his boxing moves with a bag, which, it turns out, contains a man who obviously got on his wrong side. Jang, who has paid off the local constabulary, is negotiating with a potential rival to lease his tech knowhow to the rival’s business, and when push comes to shove, Jang shows that he knows when to use bloody violence to make a point. Meanwhile, a serial killer (Kim Sung-kyu) is stalking male drivers whom he rear-ends on back streets and then, while trading insurance information, savagely stabs them to death. At first, the police don’t connect certain dots, but the usual loose cannon detective, Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yul), the kind who can’t be bought and thinks he’s ten times smarter than his superiors, has connected them but he can’t convince his colleagues that the string of murders that have occurred in the past several weeks are the work of the same person; that is, until one rainy night when the killer happens to target Jang, who, despite his bigger bulk and better reflexes, barely gets away with his life. When Jung hears about the hospitalized Jang he tries to make a deal — they work together to catch the killer. At first, Jang wants no part of this crazy cop because, 1) he doesn’t want to be any more beholden to the police than he already is, and 2) the news that he was almost killed on the street has badly hurt his reputation in the underworld, where everybody is looking to take over your position. The only way to regain that kind of respect is to get his own revenge.

The ensuing plot finds the three titular stereotypes circling one another in their own orbits until they gravitate so close that the inevitable fission occurs, and director Lee Won-tae knows how to balance bone-crunchingly violent action scenes with smooth thriller exposition. Though there’s nothing particularly original about the movie, Ma carries his ringer bona fides like a champ. Jang’s sympathetic side doesn’t have to be revealed through any kind of soppy back story or scenes of him petting his dog. He bears his humanity with class and, in fact, seems like a decent employer, given his occupation and the amount of hurt he can bring down on people. If the movie lacks anything it’s a counter-leveling female presence (the killer, for once, only targets men of a certain age). This is a resolutely macho movie, though you could say that Ma at least flattens the curve. Let’s hope Stallone knows what to do with him.

In Korean. Now playing Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Kiwi Media Group & B.A. Entertainment

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Media Mix, July 5, 2020

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the South Korean Netflix drama series Crash Landing on You. Two of the articles I cited in the column were written by women, who make up the bulk of the Japanese audience for K-dramas. Both writers refer to themselves as feminists, so it struck me at first that they would like such a conventionally sentimental love story, but, in fact, both go out of their way to assert that the series, as one said, “upsets existing gender norms.” For the first half of the series, the female South Korean protagonist, Yoon Se-ri, is stranded in North Korea, so the usual gender dynamic seems to be in play. She has to rely on the strong, stoical army captain, Ri Jeong-hyeok, to keep her safe, and he does so at considerable risk to his life. However, the second half of the series takes place in Seoul, and these traditional roles are reversed. Though Jeong-hyeok has snuck into South Korea to save Se-ri from a devious, ambitious soldier who is planning to kidnap her, it is Se-ri who basically protects Jeong-hyeok, and she also does it at considerable risk to her own life. The two writers point out that Se-ri is already identified as a “strong woman” because she has built a successful company from scratch, though they don’t mention that she was probably able to do this because she is from one of the richest families in South Korea. Similarly, Jeong-hyeok is the scion of one of the most politically powerful families in North Korea. These respective elite positions of the two main characters are exploited constantly throughout the story, so in a way the series doesn’t “upset” gender norms completely because the two lovers are already extraordinary in socioeconomic terms.

But what the two writers want to say is that the love story feels different because it is one that is based on two equals, and it’s obvious they think that this aspect was carefully built into the story, whose main hook, of course, is that the love is forbidden because the two countries our lovers represent are technically at war with each other. Traditionally, K-dramas address social class and what one writer calls “blood taboos,” meaning inter-family strife (including incest). These cliches are, in fact, derided throughout the series by North Korean characters who secretly watch K-dramas and remark on the development of the story they are living through as if it were a K-drama. Crash Landing on You does address social class in both the North and the South, and the blood taboo aspect is also a feature of the plotting, but not in the central love story itself, which is elevated to such a high ideal that Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok become avatars of a romance that transcends not only political limitations, but gender differences as well. In one of the articles, a woman is quoted as saying she enjoys watching it because there’s no sex, which is true. Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok’s love even transcends sex, which may be the most revolutionary thing about the show.

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Review: Blinded by the Light

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain type often seem perplexed by their affection for his music, which is the opposite of subtle. While the themes hit on complex human connections, the emotions are big, the guitars loud, and the arrangements for the most part reach for hyperbole by default. No one who listens to a Springsteen song adds anything of themselves to it, because there’s already too much of it.

It is this quality of his music that both informs the British coming-of-age movie Blinded by the Light and drags it down. Based on a memoir, the story follows the struggles of Pakistani-British teenager Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) in 1987, during the twilight Thatcher years of unsteady employment and charged cultural confrontation. It’s also a time when shiny new wave music was dominant on the UK charts, undergirded by the menacing postpunk shiver of the dance and rock scenes coming out of the industrial north and poorer quarters of London. The effect of all these forces on suburb-bound Javed is presented indirectly. With his hard-working father (Kulvinder Ghir) suddenly unemployed and on Javed’s ass to make something of himself, the youth turns to poetry as an outlet for his frustrations. As in almost every coming-of-age story, what the protagonist needs is something to fill that empty spot in his soul he doesn’t know exists. Then he meets the more outgoing Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh and a Springsteen fanatic who gives Javed two of the Boss’s albums on cassette, and, as the saying goes, his eyes are opened.

What the movie gets right is Javed’s sense of discovery, that feeling that takes you over as a young person when you hear a song, see a movie, read a book that seems as if it was made with you in mind. And Director Gurinder Chadha wisely dwells on the paradox here: What can a boomer guy from a working class background in Jersey, who himself never held a job in his life, say to a minority kid in late 80s England whose knowledge of the milieu Springsteen is singing about is cursory at best? In essence, Chadha says that none of that makes any difference, which is the beauty of pop music. Javed connects with Bruce on every level. His poetry improves without actually taking any cues from Springsteen. He is purely inspired.

Unfortunately, the story and, more precisely, the delivery of that story is as ham-handed as “Jungleland,” one of Springsteen’s most impassioned productions and which is referenced in a key scene in the film as a kind of central leitmotif. Javed’s metamorphosis into a Springsteen acolyte becomes almost embarrassing — those Bruce fans of a certain type will likely cringe in their seats. He and Roops shout down racist bullies with Springsteeen lyrics. They dance down the street to “Born to Run” and commandeer the school radio station to play all-Bruce all the time. The movie at times feels more like a promotional music video than a narrative film, so even when it veers back on the tracks and addresses Javed’s shakey relationship with his parents and his own post-high school goals, it seems to be striving for something way out of reach. The problem is that Springstreen’s music, his feelings, tend to overwhelm everything that comes into contact with it. The movies doesn’t stand a chance.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Blinded by the Light home page in Japanese

photo (c) BIF Bruce Limited 2019

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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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