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[Special Investigative Report] Japan's Forced Sterilization Program How Japanese Cities Compete

Author: Waseda Chronicle

◆ Major findings:

*The Japanese government conducted at least 16,500 forced sterilizations in a program that ran from 1948 until 1996. At least 2,390 of the victims were teenagers or children under 10 years old.

*Local governments competed to forcibly sterilize the most number of people, under pressure from the health ministry and the national government, an investigation by the Waseda Chronicle has found.

*Local municipalities aggressively looked for subjects for this procedure to better respond to the national call. Kyoto Prefecture, for example, targeted mental hospitals and hospitals for disabled children.

◆ Summary:

In February this year, a woman in her 60s who says she was forcibly sterilized filed a damages lawsuit against the government. The woman says a prefectural eugenic protection review board in Miyagi Prefecture violated the constitution by ordering the sterilization at a local hospital in 1972. She was 15 and mentally retarded. She says she was given no explanation for her operation.

The lawsuit is unlikely to be the last. Though calls have grown over the years for an investigation into the eugenics program, the government has refused to respond, except to argue that the program was legal at the time. Similar programs in Germany and Sweden were quickly scrapped. Apologies were given to the victims there and compensation. Japan has yet to follow suit. Many records have already been destroyed. Time is running out.


What would you do if someone important to you was sterilized, without them ever knowing about it?

Three years after the end of World War II, Japan enacted the 1948 Eugenic Protection Law, which allowed the state to forcibly sterilize mentally and/or intellectually disabled people. In 1996, the law was amended to become the Maternal Health Act, effectively banning involuntary sterilization. In the intervening years, more than 16,500 people underwent forced surgery by the state. Some were not even told they would be unable to have children after the operation. Trickery and deception were widespread.

Article one of the law explained its purpose: to "prevent the birth of defective descendants." The law originated in the postwar political ideology of "reviving the Japanese race." It initially applied only to those deemed by the state to have hereditary genetic disorders and disabilities, but eventually people with non-hereditary genetic disorders and disabilities, and even some who couldn't clearly be categorized as the disabled fell victim.

Many of the victims are still alive today, but the government has yet to offer compensation or an apology. In our special investigation series, "Forced Sterilization," we examine the government's role in violating human rights guaranteed by the constitution because officials argued, it was for the "public good.

"From August 2017, Waseda Chronicle began getting access to documents requested through information disclosure requests sent to all 47 Japanese prefectures, national archives, and the National Diet Library. Those documents shed a harsh light on the forced sterilization program. We begin our series by looking at how municipalities competed to increase the number of forced sterilization surgeries, following the national government agenda.

Our investigation found that local municipalities competed to increase the number of forced sterilization surgeries to meet the national government agenda. Government statistics show there were more than 16,000 victims of this program.

So far, just one victim has been publicly speaking about her experiences in an attempt to hold the national and local governments accountable. “Junko” is unable to use her real name because she fears a backlash. Now her advocacy for many years is finally being heard and is shaking up the government.

In this report, we tell Junko’s story and the crimes against humanity that it represents. We start our investigation by unveiling the system the government created to pursue and impose forced sterilizations.


Article 1 of the eugenics law said its purpose was to “prevent the birth of defective descendants,” as it applied to people with hereditary genetic disorders or disabilities such as schizophrenia, learning disabilities, manic depression, epilepsy, and hemophilia. Surgeries were conducted regardless of whether these people consented, as long as permission came from local government review boards. Article 4 of the law said doctors were required to report to the review boards when they found a person with hereditary genetic disorders or disabilities.

Doctors were allowed to use anesthesia or physical restraints on individuals who were noncompliant, or even to deceive them, according to a notice sent to local governments by the health ministry on October 24th, 1949. In other words, if individuals refused to undergo sterilization surgery, doctors were permitted to drug, restrain or trick them into having the operation. For men, the surgeries involved vasectomies; for women, it involved tying the fallopian tubes to block ovum(*1).


Documents obtained by Waseda Chronicle include discriminatory expressions. In order to illustrate the situation fairly and accurately, we refrained from editing or censoring them.

Video: the documents of forced stabilization

How Japan’s northern island boasted about its numbers

Hokkaido, Japan’s main northern island, led the nation’s 47 prefectures in this program, conducting surgeries on 2,593 people (see graph). In a 1956 letter obtained by Waseda Chronicle from the Kyoto Institute, Library, and Archives, Hokkaido government officials boasted to their Kyoto counterparts about the number of surgeries they had conducted(*2).

Figure: Hokkaido's commemorative pamphlet

Figure: Hokkaido's commemorative pamphlet

“The number of forced eugenic surgeries, with the help of doctors, review board members and other affiliated officials, has increased annually, with the number surpassing one thousand cases. We have printed documents that reflect this, as attached, and sent as a reference,” said the letter. A 16-page commemorative pamphlet, produced by Hokkaido government’s health bureau and Hokkaido’s Eugenic Protection Review Board, bragged that Hokkaido surgeries account for “about one-fifth of the national total” and “greatly outnumbers other prefectures as number one.”

“A great contribution to racial hygiene."

In the commemorative issue, Hokkaido said the high number of forced sterilization surgeries was exceedingly significant "from a racial hygiene perspective" (*4). One section explained that the subjects of forced surgeries had "tragic" medical histories and/or family environments. The execution of forced sterilization surgeries was, therefore, a significant responsibility, it said.

Below are excerpts from the commemorative issue, published over a decade after the war. The excerpts including the headings are unedited to give a better sense of the mindset then so that they may contain discriminatory and offensive expressions:

"Describing family members' medical and criminal history."

— A family of eight brothers, three with epilepsy

“One has the intelligence of a first-grade elementary school child. An older brother had epilepsy and died at 21. Their younger brother is a laborer who has an epileptic fit about three times every two months. Father is a white-collar worker and lives an ordinary life, and the parents and the five sisters and brothers are normal, but an uncle on the mother's side has epilepsy. A paternal uncle has schizophrenia and belongs to a typical epilepsy-heavy family".

— A mother (42) who had three children even after showing symptoms of schizophrenia one child is schizophrenic

“Married, Schizophrenic. One child after marriage. Symptoms began their onset at 29 years old. Had three more children, and the second oldest daughter (thirteen years old) was hospitalized for schizophrenia. The two others are still under ten years old but are of concern. Eugenic surgery should've been conducted the first time she was released from the hospital.

"Mother (31) and younger sister schizophrenic; younger brother killed own sister

“Schizophrenic. Married 1947. Had one child, symptoms began their onset in 1949. Divorced and left the child to return to parent’s home. Roams outside without reason, talks and laughs to herself; became pregnant by unknown father and bore an illegitimate child in 1952. Although her father is a farmer, he is considered odd and is socially isolated. Mother has mild schizophrenia. Younger brother, who killed his sister, suffers from schizophrenia.

— A Yakuza gang member (29)

“Single. Schizophrenic. Under-performer in elementary school; innately lazy. Has wanderlust and left his family at fifteen, mingled

with thugs and joined a Yakuza group. A gambling and meth addict. Has three brothers, all born out of wedlock. Mother is unmarried and strongly suspected of being a psychopath. No hereditary evidence but strong suspicion of personality disorder in both him and his mother, so eugenic surgery was conducted, considering his schizophrenia and the preservation of public well-being from his anti-societal activities."

— A disturbed family consisting of three generations of mentally disabled women

“The only sane members of the female subject who was sterilized are two children, aged two and seven, but their future is cloudy. They are on welfare. Her mother is mentally disabled and remarried after her husband ran away. The subject was born around this time and is also mentally disabled and sexually lewd. She has three daughters with her father-in-law. He is a fisherman but passed away a few years ago, and she allows a homeless man to live with her at home. She had an abortion five months into a pregnancy. Her younger daughter (17 years old, mentally disabled) also aborted a child whose father is unknown seven months into her pregnancy. Her older daughter (19 years old, mentally disabled) is extremely beautiful. She attracts attention from charcoal miners and becomes sexually involved with them for small amounts of money. All three have been hospitalized. This situation which could have been prevented had measures taken with the grandmother. Either way, the problem is that this family was free for over twenty years. It's hard not to shake one's head in disappointment, knowing they receive social and medical welfare.

Figure: A picture of the Hokkaido pamphlet

Figure: A picture of the Hokkaido pamphlet

"The central government is squarely tackling with the issue,” said the Hokkaido Prefecture

The commemorative issue pointed out that 85 percent of subjects who underwent surgery were schizophrenics. It lamented that 14,000 people in Hokkaido with mental disabilities and psychotic disorders were yet to be treated. (*8) The Hokkaido government concluded: "We are hoping for more proactive cooperation" from affiliated officials. (*9)