Abe apologizes to relatives of leprosy patients for their suffering

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday offered a heartfelt apology to family members of former leprosy patients for their suffering, after the government decided against appealing a recent court ruling ordering the state to pay compensation.
Making the first official apology to relatives of leprosy patients who suffered under the government's segregation policy between 1907 and 1996, Abe acknowledged as a "hard fact" that they endured "extremely severe prejudice and discrimination in society."
"The government deeply reflects on the pain and suffering endured by current and former leprosy patients and their family members, and offers a heartfelt apology," Abe said in a statement endorsed Friday by the cabinet.
"I myself would like to express this feeling by meeting with family members," the prime minister said. No date has been fixed and details of any meeting need to be worked out, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The apology is a milestone for the family members, nearly two decades after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized to former leprosy patients in 2001 over the segregation policy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is now curable but many patients were isolated in sanatoriums under the decades-long government policy, and family members suffered from the stigma of being their relatives.
Friday was the deadline for the government to decide whether to appeal the June 28 ruling by the Kumamoto District Court, which ordered the state to pay a total of about 376 million yen in damages to 541 out of the 561 plaintiffs.
The ruling was the first of its kind in awarding compensation to family members of former leprosy patients.
"The state is responsible for allowing prejudgment and prejudice (toward leprosy patients and their family.) With the issuance of a statement this time, we want the government to recognize its liability," Chikara Hayashi, the 94-year-old leader of the plaintiffs, said at a press conference Friday.
The plaintiffs said they also will not appeal the Kumamoto court ruling, which will finalize the decision.
According to the statement, the government will pay compensation swiftly and take measures to redress families of leprosy patients, irrespective of whether they participated in the damages suit.
But the scope of those eligible for redress was not clearly defined in the document. Suga said the government will swiftly work on the compensation framework.
The Kumamoto court pointed out the state acted illegally by failing to end segregation by 1960, when the need for the policy was lost due to progress in medicine, and retaining it under the leprosy prevention law until 1996.
The ruling recognized that the government's segregation policy made it difficult for patients' family members to enter schools, find jobs and get married.
Abe said the hardship of family members should not be prolonged when he announced Tuesday that the government did not plan to file an appeal, in a "rare" move. But he also said part of the ruling is not acceptable.
On Friday, the government issued a separate statement from Abe's to clarify its stance on the court's judgment on the three-year statute of limitations for seeking damages, among other points.
The government says the period started when a compensation accord was reached between the state and leprosy patients in January 2002, and thus the statute of limitation had expired by the time the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
The Kumamoto court, however, judged otherwise, saying the period started in 2015 when plaintiffs became aware they could try to seek compensation from the state following a Tottori District Court ruling in September that year, which rejected a damages claim by the family member of a former leprosy patient.
Japan launched a compensation system for former leprosy patients following a 2001 court ruling that found the government's segregation policy unconstitutional.
Then Prime Minister Koizumi gave up on filing an appeal against the ruling, which ordered the state to pay a total of 1.82 billion yen in damages to former leprosy patients.

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