E82 Eugenics in Japan


Show Notes for episode 82 of our Podcast – Eugenics in Japan.

Story Notes

Eugenics in Japan

It seems that in almost every country at some point the idea of eugenics has been spread through the country and even utilised with that country. So we are going to take a look at how Eugenics was undertaken in Japan in the past.

Now I came across this as there was an article that came to light January 2023 and it reminded me of the topic of eugenics in Japan. It was something I came across before Covid-19 struck the world and then it fell off my radar for a while.

This article relates how the Japanese court have now ordered the government to pay damages to those who underwent forced sterilization during the time when eugenics was carried out in the country. So let’s have a look at its history.

The idea first came to Japan through Yamanouchi Shige, a man trained under John Merle Coulter. He was searching for a way to make the Japanese race genetically surpass that of the west.

John Merle Coulter

Eventually the idea of eugenics came to Japan under the disguise of ‘nationalism and empire building.’ And it appears there were two types of eugenics. Positive and Negative.

Positive Eugenism was promoted by a man known as Ikeda Shigenori and was designed for ‘the improvement of circumstances of sexual reproduction and thus incorporates advances in sanitation, nutrition and physical education into strategies to shape the reproductive choices and decisions of individual and families.’ The opposing Negative Eugenism was promoted by Hisomu Nagai and was designed for ‘the prevention of sexual reproduction, through induced abortion or sterilization among people deemed unfit.’

In regards to what was deemed unfit, it was those who were classified as alcoholics, lepers, mentally ill, physically disabled as well as criminals.

Shigenori later went on to publish the Yūsei-undō ( 優生運動 – Eugenics Movement Magazine) in 1926 and 2 years later promoted December 21st as blood purity day.

Later was see in the early 1930’s ‘eugenic marriage’ questionnaires being put out for public consumption and there were those who thought this would help ensure the fitness of a married couple as well as making sure class differences could be avoided. 

In 1938 the Race Eugenics Protection Law was initially rejected, however, the National Eugenics Law was created in 1940 and went into effect. This law allowing compulsory steralization for ‘inherited mental disease.’ Apparently 454 people were sterilized between 1940 and 1945.

In particular this law (in Article 1) was designed ‘to prevent birth of inferior descendants from the eugenic point of view, and to protect life and health of mother, as well.” This reflected the Japanese Government’s worry not only about over-population and the predicament of mothers and pregnant women in the post-war baby boom, but also the “deterioration” in quality of offspring.

There were many additional articles included in this law. Article 3 permitted somebodies partner to have their partner sterilized by a physician if they gave consent on their behalf

According to the terms of the Article:

‘anyone could be voluntarily sterilized if: (1) he/she or the partner had hereditary “psychopathia,” “bodily disease” or “malformation,” or the partner “has mental disease or feeble-mindedness”; (2) he/she or the partner’s relative within the fourth degree of kinship had hereditary “mental disease,” “feeble-mindedness,” “psychopathia,” “bodily disease,” or “malformation”; (3) he/she or the partner was “suffering from leprosy, which is liable to carry infection to the descendants”; (4) she was a mother whose life was “endangered by conception or by delivery”; or (5) she was a “mother actually having several children” whose health condition was “feared to be seriously affected by each occasion of delivery.’

However, there were Articles (4 and 12) which allowed involuntary sterilization which was performed without the patients consent.

Article 4 said a physician could perform sterilization after consulting the Eugenic Protection Commission when someone was suffering from a disease deemed hereditary at the time.

These were the following:

‘schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, epilepsy, “remarkable abnormal sexual desire,” “remarkable criminal inclination,” Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, albinism, achromatopsia, deafness, haemophilia, “rupture of hand,” “rupture of foot.’

Luckily (if you could call it that) after the application the Eugenic Protection Commission would inform the patient who could then object and apply for a review of the matter within two weeks.

Unfortunately if you fell under the list of people from Article 12 with certain disabilities no notification needed to be given and so it could be performed against the patient will if the commission deemed it necessary.

The guidelines at the time stated:

‘It is permissible to restrain the patient’s body, to administer an anaesthetic, or to deceive the patient, etc.’

This allowed the authorization of forcible and deceitful sterilization, which was the common way of practice.

According to the statistics submitted from everything undertaken, between 1949 and 1994, 16,520 sterilizations were performed mostly without the patients consent. Out of all of these most were performed on women. In total 11,356 were carried out on women and 5,164 on men.

When we look closer into the types of people who has these surgeries performed on them most were inmates from psychiatric hospitals and most of them were deceived into having the surgery.

It is said one woman was given surgery and not informed what it was for, after discovering the truth, her mental health then deteriorated greatly. In this particular case it had been her parents who had given consent for the surgery to be undertaken.

At times people were pretty much forced into being sterilized as it was a prerequisite to being allowed into an institution. And as parents or guardians wanted their relatives in the institute they had no choice but to agree. If they were not sterilized upon entering they had to be sterilized prior to release otherwise they could never leave, otherwise they would be moved to the ‘mixed’ section of the institution.

When women were sterilized often a hysterectomy was performed instead of the tying of the fallopian tubes as a way to not cause a ‘loss of femininity.’

This law lasted all the way until 1996 when the Mother’s Body Protection Law was established on Jun 18th.

For many years there were advocates who have protested about what occurred but public attention was never really gained. It wasn’t until the report of sterilization in Sweden came to light in August 1997 that more interest was gained and talks of compensation began.

Recently the Kumamoto District Court found the 1948 law unconstitutional and awarded a total of ¥22 million ($170,000) in compensation to two different plaintiffs, Kazumi Watanabe, 78, and a 76-year-old woman who underwent forced sterilization. However compensation has been question by some as they believed a flat rate for all those who underwent this procedure is unjust and it should be based on a case by case basis.

Header Image: DNA structure from Pixabay.


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Heavenly Spear