Forced Sterilizations in Japan: The Push for Justice


Between the end of World War II and the 1970s, some 16,000 people with mental illnesses and disabilities were forced to undergo sterilization under Japan’s eugenics laws. Although the laws are no longer on the statute books, the government has been insensitive to the suffering of victims and slow to make recompense. Recent lawsuits to seek damages and an official apology have brought the issue into the public eye, prompting questions about the government’s commitment to social justice and human rights.

On January 30, 2018, a woman in her sixties who underwent compulsory sterilization under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Act filed a lawsuit in the Sendai District Court, suing the Japanese government for ¥11 million in damages and demanding an official apology. The case, the first of its kind in Japan, has prompted others to follow, and further suits have been brought in Hokkaidō and Tokyo, with others apparently in preparation. But after more than half a century, the surviving evidence is scanty, and the plaintiffs may find it difficult to win their cases in court.

Germany and Sweden have already faced the issue of state compensation for people who were forced to undergo sterilization under national eugenics policies. Compared to these countries, the situation in Japan has a number of regretful characteristics, notably the anachronistic nature of the Eugenic Protection Act itself (which remained in place until quite recently) and the lack of initiative on the part of the authorities to provide redress to victims in the years since the law was scrapped.

Early Eugenics Programs in California and Nazi Germany

The ideas behind eugenics were widely accepted in many industrialized countries from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Eugenics applied the apparent lessons of evolutionary theory and genetics to human societies, resulting in policies that claimed to improve the genetic makeup of the nation and prevent hereditary “degradation.” It was widely accepted that human faculties and character were genetically determined—a view that the latest science seemed to support. Eugenics policies were chiefly concerned to prevent the spread of “bad genes.” Forced sterilization was a powerful means of achieving this end. But first, the proper laws had to be put in place.

People tend to associate eugenics with Nazi Germany, but the Germans were far from alone in falling for the idea. In fact, the first country in the world to pass eugenics laws was the United States, and the German Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), passed soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933, was modeled on the sterilization laws then in force in California.

Many of the people subjected to forced sterilizations were mental patients whose conditions were believed to be hereditary. Eugenics policies were often implemented as part of social welfare programs, on the reasoning that these polices would prevent mental illnesses and improve social efficiency. The idea was that sterilizations would be carried out on patients with hereditary mental illnesses, but with genetic science still in its infancy, many of the diagnoses were imprecise to say the least. The reasoning behind policies was soon broadened to apply to alcoholics and people with intellectual disabilities of all kinds, and many more people were caught up in the net.

The German system was formally based on the idea of consent, but the law allowed doctors as well as the chiefs of health institutions and prisons to file an application for sterilization with a Genetic Health Court (Erbgesundheitsgericht), whose decisions were binding and could be imposed by force. The Nazis made full use of this macabre machinery, eventually carrying out around 375,000 forced sterilizations. In total, around 0.5 percent of all Germans were sterilized during the Nazi period.

“Scientific Eugenics,” Abortion, and the Eugenic Protection Law

It is important to remember that eugenics policies continued in many countries even after the end of World War II. Eugenics policies were not among the crimes tried at the Nuremburg trials, and involvement in the eugenics program was not considered a reason for investigation during the denazification purges carried out by the Allies after the war. The only substantial change made was the abolition of the Genetic Health Courts. But as the notorious Nazi eugenics program came to an end, in some countries the age of full-fledged “scientific eugenics” was just about to begin. And few counties implemented these ideas more enthusiastically than Japan.

In 1940, Japan followed the example of Nazi Germany by passing its own National Eugenic Law. The law permitted forced sterilizations “in the public interest” in the case of people with hereditary mental disabilities and other genetic conditions. But the importance traditionally given to the family in Japan meant that there was widespread resistance to the idea of sterilization, which would cut off the family line. And with the wartime government actively encouraging couples to have more children, the National Eugenic Law was never implemented in more than a haphazard, half-hearted fashion. The original bill permitted abortion for eugenics-related reasons, but these provisions were scrapped, and legislation allowing forced sterilizations in the public interest only managed to squeeze through the Diet after the minister in charge promised a moratorium on putting the provisions into practice. As a result, relatively few sterilizations were carried out under the National Eugenic Law: 538 in all.

But defeat in the war changed conditions in Japan dramatically. The national territory shrunk, and population control soon became an important issue as servicemen returned from overseas and the postwar baby boom got underway. Rape was also a serious concern in the immediate aftermath of the war and during the occupation, and there was a strong demand for a loosening of the restrictions on abortion. This represented almost a complete reversal of the situation before and during the war. It was in these circumstances that the Eugenic Protection Act came into being.

The new law was based on the ineffectual wartime National Eugenic Law, promoting what it called a “scientific eugenics policy” and also legalizing abortions for the first time. Following several revisions, the law was broadened to allow abortion for economic reasons, and before long pre-termination screening procedures were done away with altogether. After 1950, more than a million abortions were carried out every year, based on official reports alone. The laws on illegal abortion that remained were simply ignored in practice. Japan became one of the first countries in the world to legalize and liberalize abortion, and became known as an “abortion paradise.”

Sterilization Without Consent

Some members of the Diet worried that in these postwar conditions there was a risk that the quality of the Japanese population would deteriorate as a result of what was known as “adverse selection.” In response, the postwar Eugenic Protection Act embraced policies that in some ways were even more forceful than the Nazi sterilization laws. Doctors could recommend sterilizations to prefectural Eugenic Protection Committees; following a screening by the committee, sterilizations could then be carried out not only on people with hereditary mental illnesses or other clearly genetic conditions, but on regular mental patients as well. Consent was not required; the operations were carried out regardless of the wishes of the patient.

As late as the 1970s, some doctors and people in charge of mental health institutions continued to believe that sterilization was an appropriate response to mental illness, both for the individual and for the public interest, and continued to recommend the operations enthusiastically. Many people were sterilized without any explanation, including minors, mental patients, and indigent children.

By the late 1950s, more than 1000 people were subject to forced sterilization every year. The number steadily declined, and by the 1980s forced sterilizations had become rare. In 1996, the law on eugenics policies was scrapped in its entirety and replaced by the Maternal Health Act. By this time, a total of 16,250 people had been sterilized under the Eugenic Protection Act over a period of 48 years.

Japan’s Eugenics Laws: a Timeline

1940 National Eugenic Law passed.
1948 Eugenic Protection Act comes into force.
Around 1955 Number of forced sterilizations peaks at around 1,000 operations a year.
1970s Government proposes a bill banning abortions for economic reasons, but allowing abortions for handicapped fetuses. The bill fails to pass.
1996 All references to eugenics scrapped from the Eugenic Protection Act; its name is amended to the Maternal Health Act.
2015 A woman in her seventies who was forcibly sterilized submits a suit for human rights damages to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
2016 The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women issues a recommendation to the Japanese government calling on it to offer compensation to the victims of the sterilization law.
2017 The Japan Federation of Bar Associations recommends that the government should move quickly to apologize and offer redress.
January 2018 A woman in her sixties issues a lawsuit at the Sendai District Court demanding damages from the government.

(Compiled by

Lessons from Sweden

As countries that have already faced similar questions of compensation and official apology for forced sterilizations, Germany and Sweden offer an example for Japan on how it might address the issue in the months and years to come. In Germany, compensation to victims of the Nazi sterilization and euthanasia programs began in 1980. But since these cases took place within the unique framework of compensation for Nazi crimes, the case of Sweden offers is probably a more useful precedent for Japan.

Moves to address past sterilizations in Sweden began with a series of articles in the influential Dagens Nyheter newspaper in August 1997. The government responded swiftly, and set up a study committee to investigate. The committee delivered its interim report in January 1999. The report took the view that the sterilizations performed between 1937 and 1975 had not been carried out with the full consent of the individuals involved, and recommended that damages of 170,500 kroner (approximately ¥2 million) be paid to each victim. The necessary legislation was passed, and damages have been paid to more than 1,600 people in the years since.

Democracies make mistakes, but the systems need to be in place to correct these errors when they occur. The values and norms of society are always undergoing gradual change, and it will sometimes happen that policies carried out in the past are judged abhorrent by today’s standards. The proper response is to carry out a prompt investigation and offer recompense and apologies to all those who were affected. This is the sign of a mature, developed society.

Japan’s Insensitivity to the Human Rights of Disabled People

Compared with Sweden, Japan has until recently been astonishingly insensitive to the basic human right of people with disabilities to have families of their own. The government has failed to understand that the people whose rights were infringed in this way deserve to be compensated, and has taken a harsh and coldhearted attitude toward the victims and their families.

Some people made intermittent attempts in the past to point out the problems with the law’s concept of heredity and forced sterilizations, but these had zero effect. It was only in 1994, when international forums like the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development and the World Conference on Women started to pay attention to the anachronistic nature of Japan’s Eugenic Protection Act, that things began to change. Almost overnight, the offending legislation was torn from the statute book. Recently, there have been reports that the government and Liberal Democratic Party have begun preparations for a special law that will provide compensation without waiting for the results of the court cases. Given the advanced age of the victims, and the fact that the evidence and records of what took place are often patchy, high-level political decisiveness will be essential, and there is surely a case to be made for flexibility and a new approach to compensation.

For decades, the government routinely infringed the basic rights of people with mental illnesses and disabilities, and for years since then the victims and their families have been ignored and silenced. These facts speak for themselves, and point unmistakably to serious shortcomings in Japanese society. Particularly distressing is the way in which politicians, bureaucrats, the media, and academia all allowed their intellectual, imaginative, and empathetic faculties to become so blunted that they lost their sense of social justice and fairness. I conclude this essay with a deep feeling of remorse. I hope the lessons of the past will ensure that similar mistakes are never repeated in the future.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 13, 2018. Banner photo: Legal representatives make their way to the Sapporo District Court on June 28, 2018, to file a lawsuit suing the government for damages on behalf of a couple forced to undergo sterilization. © Jiji.)

human rights disability eugenics