Leprosy sanitarium with dark past offers hope of brighter future


Endaiji, a Shinto shrine at Tama Zenshoen. Photo Credit: Kenji Johnson

Northwestern Tokyo is home to a picturesque but little-known hideaway as surreal as the Disney Resort that has been the country’s major tourist attraction for decades. However this otherworld has none of the joy associated with Mickey Mouse and Co.

In contrast with much of the capital’s jumbled hodgepodge of thoroughfares, the spotless tree-lined avenues and dense woods of the Tama Zenshoen leprosarium offer respite from the blistering summer heat. There is a pastoral atmosphere about Tama Zenshoen, which is a few minutes’ train ride away from the crowded hustle and bustle of central Tokyo. Homes with individual gardens — an unattainable dream for the vast majority residing in Tokyo — are the norm here. The large number of flowers, bonsai or manicured lawns attests to constant love and attention.

Anyone can enter this compound freely, and the government has made it law for them to do so. Yet, apart from one group playing baseball and another group playing tennis, the compound is quieter more often than its residents would like. Silence is the norm, even though a bell rings over the loudspeakers every minute. This silence offers another contrast to the constant noise common in Tokyo. Although the average age of the roughly 300 people living in Tama Zenshoen is 80, and all residents received a payout from the government from 8 million yen to 14 million yen ($100,00 – $175,00) not too long ago, this is no retirement home for the elderly.

The area is as far as possible removed from the life of an average Tokyo resident without leaving the Japanese capital. That’s precisely what this idyllic plot of land was designed to be. However the moats and gates that once kept its residents sequestered inside and the black-clad guards that once patrolled the perimeter are now long gone.

Tama Zenshoen is one of 13 remaining leprosariums in Japan. Its residents are a portion of the dwindling number of Tokyo’s lepers — or sufferers of Hansen’s disease, as they prefer the affliction to be known.

Although it has been known for decades that leprosy is curable, Japan used the stringent 1931 Leprosy Prevention Law to keep people quarantined until new legislation abolished the law in 1996. The government acknowledged its mistreatment of lepers in 2001. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a formal apology and paid compensation payments to thousands with Hansen’s disease whose lives had been forcibly taken from them.

Although lepers were not entirely welcomed in wider society, during feudal times Japan did not regard them as outcasts. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the subsequent push to modernize, Japanese leaders were quick to follow the advice of Western advisors to separate those with Hansen’s disease from the rest of society. This also meant encouraging society to adopt the stigma against the affliction, which often meant lepers’ families were treated as pariahs even if they had not contracted the disease.

A memorial to those who died at Tama Zeshoen. Photo Credit: Kenji Johnson

By the 1930s, popular movements that sought isolation of lepers were carried out at prefectural level. People with the disease were often forcibly rounded up and taken away to leprosariums like Tama Zenshoen. These people almost always never left the compounds again.

With the postwar development of drugs to treat leprosy, most countries stopped isolating people with Hansen’s disease. Japan also began treating its patients, but its government made no moves to allow people with Hansen’s disease to freely re-enter society despite widespread protests. Those who were cured and left the leprosariums often returned because they were unable to overcome the leprosy stigma. They were shunned by society, employers and even families.

Meanwhile, within the compounds, patients were being sterilized or pregnancies aborted to ensure that Hansen’s disease would not pass on to future generations. However, Hansen’s disease is not hereditary. Others who tried to escape, or who disobeyed orders, were punished or forced into solitary confinement.

By the time the forced isolation period ended, few had a chance to return to society and all had been institutionalized. Leprosy stigma remained strong.

“People cannot dispel prejudice so easily after the government maintained the segregation policy for such a long time,” said Yasuji Hirasawa, a Hansen’s disease patient. “Some former patients have reunited with their families, but I believe many still cannot do so out of fear of prejudice and rejection.”

Despite the sadness the bucolic infirmary’s past conceals, Tama Zenshoen may now offer glimmers of hope for a brighter future for others. Sanitarium dwellers have been deprived of descendants because of the sterilization and abortion policies. However, they can pass on a legacy in some way as the ever-increasing availability of the land at Zenshoen is put to communal use. One of the first beneficiaries will be a childcare center to be built within the grounds.

Osamu Sagawa, a Hansen’s patient who chairs Zenshoen’s residents’ association, welcomed the move. “Even after the end of the war, leprosy patients were forced to have sterilization operations,” he said. “We were prohibited from having children. When we look at small children, we feel like they could have been our grandchildren.”

Moreover, during a May meeting of the heads of branches of Zenryokyo, the unions of patents at Hansen’s disease centers across Japan voted unanimously to offer available lands in leprosariums (including Tama Zenshoen) to relocate victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku Region on March 11. If this offer is accepted, it would enable people who have been cruelly stripped of dignity and human rights for decades to offer a helping hand — and an oasis of beauty – to others who have suffered through events beyond their control.

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One Response to Leprosy sanitarium with dark past offers hope of brighter future

  1. mr bond on 07/26/2011 at 5:28 pm

    This is a touching piece indeed, moreover the publication of the article, the first feature I have read on the topic of Hansen’s disease in Japan, itself bears witness to the more tolerant attitude, evidently encouraged by that remarkable man Koizumi-san,when he was prime minister.
    Even so, the mention of forced sterilization sends a chill through the blood.
    Not mentioned in this article is the role played by right wing activist Ryoichi Sasakawa. He fought a long battle on a world-wide scale to combat the disease, and to treat the sufferers as citizens of this world. He was known as one who embraced those lepers he met on his travels in Africa.
    I salute the author of this article for his measured piece. Most touching.

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