By Masashi Osedo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer OKAYAMA — Japan’s first national sanatorium for Hansen’s disease patients, called Nagashima-Aiseien, opened in Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, in 1930. Now, momentum is gradually rising over a plan to register it as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
Efforts to achieve the registration began in 2013 with the aim of passing down knowledge of the government’s policy — now acknowledged as wrong — of quarantining patients with Hansen’s disease.
Since then, ordinary people and local governments have joined the effort, and the number of visitors to the sanatorium’s historical museum has been on the rise.
“When a patient married, he or she was forced to be sterilized,” Shizuo Tanimoto, 82, a resident of the sanatorium, told about 20 visitors. The sanatorium is located on Nagashima island in the placid Seto Inland Sea.
Tanimoto continued: “As not only the patients but also their parents and siblings were discriminated against, if you entered this kind of sanatorium, your family members would tell others that you had died. That’s how we were treated.”
Tanimoto, a Tokushima Prefecture native, was sent to the sanatorium in 1957. He said his relatives did not inform him of the deaths of his parents, and even a doctor working at the sanatorium would not enter his room when he was sick.
Tanimoto criticized the now-defunct Leprosy Prevention Law, which included the segregation of the patients, for “not having recognized the patients as humans.”
He said, “I don’t want discrimination like this ever to exist again, in any country.”
Hansen’s disease is an infectious disease caused by leprosy bacteria. Norwegian doctor Gerhard Hansen discovered the bacteria in 1873.
The bacteria’s infectiousness is very low, but there are cases in which infected patients suffer from deformations of the face, hands or legs, which led to discrimination against them.
Japan’s quarantine policy continued from 1907 to 1996. In the late 1950s, about 12,000 patients lived in such sanatoriums. A 2001 ruling by the Kumamoto District Court in a lawsuit demanding state compensation said that “after at least 1960 the quarantine policy was not necessary.”
Nagashima-Aiseien and Oku-Komyoen — another national sanatorium, which opened on the island in 1938 — housed about 3,000 patients at one time.
An effective remedy for the disease was developed in the 1940s, and a policy to free patients from such sanatoriums began in other countries. But in Japan, the quarantine policy was maintained until 1996, when the law was abolished.
Many sanatorium residents need nursing care because of the aftereffects of the disease or their advanced age. But having no one they can rely on in their hometowns, they must continue to live in the sanatoriums. According to the two sanatoriums, a total of 241 people lived there as of the end of January.
With the aim of passing on this negative history to future generations, the efforts for UNESCO registration, with the heads of the two sanatoriums playing leading roles, began in autumn 2013.
They established a preparatory panel, and Oshimaseishoen, another national sanatorium in Takamatsu, joined the activity.
Nao Hoshino, an official at the National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Tokyo, said, “The Japanese policy, in which both the public and private sectors thoroughly isolated patients, was remarkably harsh compared with other parts of the world.”
The main office building of Nagashima-Aiseien was converted into a history museum in 2003. Items such as currency that could be used only at the sanatorium are exhibited there.
Residents at the sanatorium continue to tell their experiences to others. But most of them are now aged 80 or older. “The time left for us is short,” Tanimoto said.
Funds are needed to repair and preserve the aged sanatorium facilities. Yui no Kai, a volunteer group that assists Hansen’s disease patients, cooperated in the sanatorium’s fund-raising activity. A crowdfunding campaign also began.
The Setouchi city government has shown willingness to assist Hansen’s disease sanatoriums with revenue from the furusato nozei local tax donation system.
The number of visitors to the history museum, which had been on the decline, surpassed the 10,000 level for the first time in fiscal 2014, reaching 12,093 in fiscal 2017.
Tomohisa Tamura, 42, a staff member of the history museum, said, “We mustn’t let this momentum end up as a one-time boom.”
In January last year, concerned people, including ordinary citizens and the city mayor, established a nonprofit organization called Hansen’s Disease Sanatoria World Heritage Promotion Council. In November last year, the central government’s Council for Cultural Affairs proposed registering 10 facilities at the two sanatoriums as national tangible cultural properties.
World Heritage sites need to be permanently protected. In the case of those in Japan, such procedures as designating them as important cultural properties and historical sites under the Protection of Cultural Properties Law are necessary before applying for World Heritage registration.
For the sanatoriums to become a Word Heritage site, the facilities first need domestic recognition.
However, from 2020, the number of sites a country can put forward as natural or cultural world heritage sites will be limited to just one. Thus, competition among those aiming to get World Heritage registration in Japan is expected to intensify.
Another island where a quarantine policy was adopted, Robben Island in South Africa, was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1999. Nelson Mandela, who later became president of the country, was imprisoned on the island for fighting against the country’s apartheid racial segregation policy. Later, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Due to its history, Robben Island continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
Daisuke Kamai, secretary general of the NPO, said: “We want to make efforts to pass down to future generations how sanatorium residents lived their lives, and restore their honor. In addition, we want to aim to be a World Cultural Heritage site that contributes to the elimination of various types of discrimination.”Speech