The fifth of the first five government-run leprosaria to be established in Japan marked its centenary in September. National Sanatorium Tama-Zenshoen and others like it were the product of a leprosy prevention law passed in 1907 that empowered the authorities to isolate patients with the disease. The law, which was subsequently strengthened, was not repealed until 1996 . decades after the practice of forced isolation had been discredited abroad.
Why did Japan take so long to dispense with this outmoded and unjust legislation? For a start, Japanese leprologists chose not to go along with evolving international opinion on the issue of forced isolation, and Japanese government policy reflected this thinking. Post World War II, Japanese leprologists continued to believe that compulsory segregation was necessary and effective, even as sulphone drugs became available and the International Leprosy Association was recommending against isolation. A revision to the Japan's Leprosy Prevention Law in 1953 actually reinforced the policy and made no provision for a return to society.
Another factor highlighted in a 2005 Japan Law Foundation report was the lack of public appetite for change. When the Japanese government introduced a policy in 1935 to root out leprosy in 20 years by actively searching for people with the disease in every prefecture and forcing them in sanatoria, this had the effect of strengthening discrimination and prejudice against leprosy.
It also fuelled ignorance. Not only were patients isolated from society, but so were the sanatoria and the discipline of leprology itself. Patients' movements did their best to agitate for the law's repeal but ran up against a wall of indifference and prejudice. It was only in the 1980s that attitudes began to change, as more medical professionals voiced their support for the sanatoria's residents. Even then, it would not be until 1996 that the law was finally abolished.