Abe apologizes to families of former leprosy patients over discrimination

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday apologized to family members of former leprosy patients who suffered under the government's segregation policy of the past.
"I deeply apologize as prime minister and as representing the government for having forcing you to endure pain and hardship for a long time in your precious life," Abe, bowing in apology, told a meeting with the family members at his office.
"The government as a whole will work with you toward eradicating discrimination and prejudice," Abe said.
The meeting came after the government did not appeal a court decision that ordered the state to pay a total of about 376 million yen ($3.47 million) in damages to 541 out of 561 plaintiffs in a damages suit at the Kumamoto District Court.
Chikara Hayashi, who led the plaintiffs in the damages suit, said the government's decision against appealing the ruling gave the family members hope.
Hayashi urged the government to step up efforts to change wrong perceptions about leprosy, which is now curable, through education. It is "difficult" to dispel the sense of discrimination in society, Hayashi said. Leprosy is also called Hansen's disease.
"Abe's apology was a blessing," Hwang Gwang Nam, deputy head of the plaintiffs' group, told a press conference held at a parliamentary building after the meeting.
Many patients had been isolated in sanatoriums under the decades-long government policy between 1907 and 1996, and their relatives faced discrimination.
The government has said it will pay compensation swiftly to relatives of leprosy patients, irrespective of whether they participated in the damages suit, but details have yet to be revealed.
Japan has already set up a compensation system for former leprosy patients themselves, and in 2001 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized for the country's segregation policy.

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