Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan
by John Whitehead
See Part 1: The Wages of War: How Abortion Came to Japan
World War II’s devastation of Japan, and the politics of the post-war American occupation, led to the Japanese Diet [parliament] passing the Eugenic Protection Law 70 years ago, in 1948. The law legalized abortion in Japan, with millions of Japanese children being killed in womb over subsequent decades.
The law also legalized a non-lethal but still violent and eugenicist practice: forced sterilization. This aspect of post-war Japanese life confirms the connections, so familiar to defenders of life, between ableism and violence.
Before the War
As she did with the history of abortion legalization, Tiana Norgren describes the history of forced sterilization in Japan in her work Abortion before Birth Control: The Politics of Reproduction in Postwar Japan. Legal forced sterilization largely didn’t exist in Japan before the war’s end. Official government ideology favored increasing the country’s population and discouraged measures that might prevent births. Contraception and abortion were severely restricted during the 1930s and much of the 1940s.
Eugenicists made multiple attempts to pass a sterilization law during this period, partly inspired by Nazi Germany’s policy. These efforts failed in the Diet, however, in the face of opposition from people of different ideological bents. Some opposed sterilization because they favored the state’s official “Give Birth and Multiply” stance, and others opposed it because they thought limiting population would distract from redistributing resources within the society.
The eugenicists came close to victory in 1940, when the Diet passed the National Eugenics Law. The law allowed sterilization for people who had various broadly defined illnesses or disabilities and whose children were likely to have these conditions. The law also allowed people judged not of sound mind to be sterilized on the consent of their parents or spouse—and contained a general clause allowing for sterilization without “the necessary consents” if such an operation was necessary “for the public good.”
Yet this general involuntary sterilization clause was never enforced during the remaining war years. Only about 500 voluntary sterilizations were carried out during the remaining war years and immediate post-war years.
Post-War Eugenic Law
The economic hardships of the post-war years increased Japanese politicians’ interest in population control. The Eugenic Protection Law of 1948 made forced sterilization fully a reality. The law allowed for voluntary sterilization under broader conditions than the wartime legislation, and also included crucial new provisions. Under the new law, applications for sterilization could be made not only by those desiring the procedure for themselves but by physicians who found someone has certain conditions and judge “that in order to prevent hereditary transmission of the disease it is necessary, for the public good, to perform a eugenic operation.”
The conditions that could qualify someone for sterilization fell into five categories:
1) “hereditary mental illnesses”;
2) “hereditary mental deficiency”;
3) “serious hereditary psychopathic disorders”;
4) “serious hereditary physical ailments”; and
5) “extreme hereditary deformities.”
Hereditary mental illnesses were defined as schizophrenia, manic-depression, and epilepsy. Hereditary mental deficiency was defined by vague concepts such as “seriously abnormal sexual desires” and “serious criminal tendencies.” Serious hereditary physical ailments included conditions such as progressive muscular dystrophy and hereditary deafness or hearing impairment.
The Eugenic Protection Law also had a general provision that a physician could apply to have someone with an unspecified mental illness or “deficiency” sterilized as long as the person’s spouse, parent, or other guardian consented.
A “Eugenic Protection Commission” with jurisdiction in a particular area would decide whether to grant the physician’s application to have someone sterilized. If the Commission granted the application, the person targeted for sterilization had two weeks after notification by the Commission to appeal the decision. However, an objection by the targeted person didn’t guarantee the sterilization wouldn’t be carried out.
The eugenic philosophy in the 1948 law bothered the American occupation authorities, several of whom voiced their concerns. Two years before the law’s passage, one occupation researcher expressed his alarm at eugenic ideas within Japan, which he claimed was “evidence of the profound hold that tribal racism still exerts over the Japanese people.”
The Americans could hardly throw stones, however: forced sterilization had been legally practiced in the United States for far longer than in Japan: in the 20th century, over 30 American states would allow forced sterilization. Over 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States between 1907 and 1964. People of color were overrepresented among the victims of this practice.
Whether because of the ambivalent American relationship with eugenics and sterilization, concern for population control, or a general desire not to interfere in Japanese politics, the American occupation authorities didn’t prevent the Eugenic Protection Law and its sterilization provisions from being adopted.
Thousands of forced sterilizations were carried out in Japan in the following decades, peaking in the mid-1950s. Roughly 16,500 people were subjected to such sterilizations during the years the law was in effect. Another 8,500 ill or disabled people were sterilized supposedly with their own consent, although subtle coercion may have played a role.
In one case, a 16-year-old woman working as a housekeeper was suspected of having a mental disability and was sterilized in 1963—not only without her consent, but even without her knowledge of what the operation was. When she discovered she had been sterilized, she recounts that “I went to Tokyo to see if I could get the operation reversed but I was told it wouldn’t be possible… They stole my life away.”
In another case, a 15-year-old woman, who may have suffered brain damage because of excessive anesthesia during surgery, was diagnosed with “hereditary feeble-mindedness” and forcibly sterilized in 1972. The woman’s sister-in-law commented that “When she was about 22 or 23 there was talk of marriage, but then when she said that she couldn’t have children then the person who had proposed to her said that they didn’t want to marry her.”
As draconian as the law was, doctors and officials occasionally went beyond it. Proper procedures for approving sterilizations weren’t always followed. The medical condition of the person being sterilized was sometimes falsified to fit the Eugenic Protection Law’s provisions. In an infamous 1965 case, a doctor castrated an institutionalized mentally ill boy without his parents’ permission.
Moreover, ableism could go beyond forced sterilization to forced abortion: about 60,000 disabled women might have been subjected to this practice because of the view that the disabled shouldn’t have children.
Disability Rights Victories
Over the post-war decades, eugenics and forced sterilization provoked organized opposition from Japanese disability rights activists. These activists and feminists spoke out against the Eugenic Protection Law at United Nations conferences such the 1994 Cairo population conference and 1995 Beijing women’s conference, generating international publicity and pressure on the Japanese government.
Lawmakers set about reforming the law, consulting disability rights activists about the reform. These activists saw their efforts prevail in 1996 when the eugenic, coercive elements were finally removed from the Eugenic Protection Law—which was renamed the Maternal Protection Law.
Under the reformed law, sterilization required the consent of the person undergoing the operation and that person’s spouse, if any. The acceptable grounds for sterilization now became a threat to the mother’s life from childbearing or, if she already had multiple children, a threat to her health from child bearing. (Sterilization was also permitted if the person to be sterilized or the spouse had leprosy and was likely to pass it on to children—stigma and persecution of those with leprosy being a long-standing problem in Japan.)
Disability rights activists won a further victory later in the 1990s. Nichibo, a professional association of ob-gyns, intended to lobby for reforming the law to allow abortion in cases of “incurable and fatal” prenatal illness. Protests from disability rights groups led Nichibo to drop this idea.
Although the Eugenic Protection Law is now gone, the Japanese still deal with its legacy. Whether the government owes compensation to victims of forced sterilization has been the subject of recent debates and lawsuits. The woman mentioned above who was sterilized in 1972 sued the government this year, arguing that the Eugenic Protection Law violated the Japanese constitution. Other lawsuits have followed, and the Diet is currently working on a compensation package for forced sterilization victims, to be considered next year.
Whether the Eugenic Protection law will ultimately be judged to have been unconstitutional from the start remains to be seen. We can hope, however, that survivors of this injustice and disability rights activists will continue to overcome the ableism that made these injustices possible.
We should also, in studying this history, contemplate that Japan, which resisted eugenically motivated sterilization and abortion even when it was a militarist state allied with Nazi Germany, embraced it in the aftermath of wartime defeat and occupation by the United States.
See Part 1: The Wages of War: How Abortion Came to Japan
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