Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered "sincere remorse and a heartfelt apology" to the victims. It came after the parliament earlier Wednesday enacted legislation to provide redress, including 3.2 million yen ($28,600) in compensation for each victim.
An estimated 25,000 people were sterilized without consent under the 1948 Eugenics Protection Law, which remained in place until 1996. The law allowed doctors to sterilize people with disabilities. It was quietly renamed the Maternity Protection Law in 1996, when the discriminatory condition was removed.
The redress legislation acknowledges that many people were forced to have operations to remove their reproductive organs or were given radiation treatment to be sterilized, causing them tremendous mental and physical pain.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a statement, said the problem should never be repeated. "We will do all we can to achieve a society where no one is discriminated against, whether they have illnesses or handicaps, and live together while respecting each other's personality and individuality," he said.
The government had until recently maintained that the sterilizations were legal at the time.
The apology and the redress law follow a series of lawsuits by victims who have come forward recently after breaking decades of silence. That prompted lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties to draft a compensation package to make amends.
The plaintiffs are seeking about 30 million yen each ($268,000) in legal actions that are spreading around the country, saying the government's implementation of the law violated the victims' right to self-determination, reproductive health and equality. They say the government redress measures are too small.
"Looking back at what we have suffered as victims, I don't think what's in the law is sufficient," said a 76-year-old plaintiff in Tokyo who uses the pseudonym Saburo Kita. "I'd rather want my life back." Kita said he was sterilized in 1957 at age 14 when he lived in an orphanage. He broke the secret to his wife just before she died several years ago, saying he regretted she couldn't have children because of him.
In addition to the forced sterilizations, more than 8,000 others were sterilized with consent, though likely under pressure, while nearly 60,000 women had abortions because of hereditary illnesses. However, the redress law does not cover those who had to abort their pregnancies, according to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
Among them were about 10,000 leprosy patients who had been confined in isolated institutions until 1996, when the leprosy prevention law was also abolished. The government has already offered compensation and an apology to them for its forced isolation policy.
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