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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

TRIBUTE: A Life Well Lived

Dr. Fujio Otani believed in prioritizing social justice, equity and human rights.

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Dr. Fujio Otani
(1924-2010)
Dr. Fujio Otani was a medical doctor and health ministry bureaucrat who played a pivotal role in addressing the wrongs inflicted by government policy on people in Japan affected by leprosy.

As a ministry official, he oversaw their treatment and care as regulated by the Leprosy Prevention Law, which isolated them for life in state-run sanatoria. Otani used his position to ameliorate their living conditions as best he could.

Once he retired from the ministry, however, he came to realize that merely improving life in the sanatoria had missed the point: Japan's leprosy law was deeply flawed and constituted a violation of human rights by exaggerating the threat and severely restricting individual freedoms. His determined efforts to have the law overturned, coming on top of what he had already done for sanatorium residents, earned him their everlasting gratitude.

A graduate of Kyoto University, Otani joined the Japanese Ministry of Health in 1959 after a long bout with tuberculosis and a spell working at a local health clinic. Some 10 years later, he was placed in charge of the nation's leprosy sanatoria.

His first visit to Tokyo's sanatorium, Tama Zenshoen, was in 1972. Residents had a long list of grievances and were demanding that the ministry send someone to hear them out. They were amazed that it was Otani himself who came, and that he listened until dawn. He was, they would discover, a man who treated them as fellow human beings and empathized with their plight.

Otani was also the first bureaucrat to invite people affected by leprosy inside the health ministry; a colleague recalled how the visitors departed with happy expressions on their faces. This was at a time when officials at the local city office near Tama Zenshoen still received hazard pay for dealing with people from the sanatorium, would serve them tea in disposable cups and would disinfect the chairs they sat in.

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Two of Dr. Otani's books: the work at right is titled "The Current Stigmas: The Hardships of Hansen's Disease, Mental Illness, AIDS and Other Difficult Diseases."

From Otani's interaction with people affected by leprosy grew a desire to address the discrimination they faced within the health ministry and in society at large. While in charge of leprosy policy, he saw to it that sanatorium residents' accommodation was improved and their allowances increased. Even when he became Director General of Health Services (the highest post a technocrat can attain), he kept leprosy close to his heart and maintained the friendships he had formed with sanatoria residents.

However, it was in the years after he retired from the ministry in 1983 that he turned his full attention to revoking the Leprosy Prevention Law. He established what is now the National Hansen's Disease Museum, to raise awareness of the discrimination to which people with the disease had been subjected. He organized seminars on leprosy. Perhaps most importantly, he set up a committee of experts, lawyers, and journalists to study the repeal of the law. The report that the committee submitted to the government paved the way for the law's abolition in 1996.

In 2001, a group of people affected by leprosy sued the government, seeking compensation for their enforced isolation. At the trial, Otani was asked by both sides to testify. For six hours he gave his views on the history and treatment of leprosy, the policy of isolation, and the human rights violations inflicted on the sanatorium residents. He said he had done his best for them under the policy of the time, but had failed to recognize that their rights were being denied. A person in court that day said it was as if Otani was giving evidence before God.

His testimony helped to bring about a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, which the government chose not to contest. Among its many ramifications, the decision paved the way for sanatorium residents in Taiwan and Korea, originally confined under Japanese colonial rule, to launch compensation claims of their own.

In an article he wrote a few weeks after the verdict, Otani called on lawmakers, government officials, medical professionals, judicial experts and the media to consider the role they played in the perpetuation of the problem. "Reflecting on my own conduct," he wrote, "I feel that Japanese fail to give serious consideration to human rights problems.... The problem would never have arisen if Japan were a civilized nation that honored basic human rights and democratic principles. At the root of the Hansen's disease problem are the ills of postwar Japanese society."

In addition to his career with the health ministry, Otani was instrumental in the formation of the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, providing key advice to the small group tasked with its establishment. He went on to serve on the board of trustees, and is remembered with great affection, admiration and respect by all who worked with him.

He also served as the first president of the International University of Health and Welfare and was the author of more than a dozen books that laid out his views on social justice, equity and human rights.

In keeping with his convictions, Otani was firmly opposed to attempts to close down or merge the sanatoria in which people had spent the bulk of their lives. Society excluded people in the past by isolating them in sanatoria, he said; it should not be permitted to move them again for its own convenience.

In a moving tribute at Dr. Otani's funeral, Yasuji Hirasawa, a resident of Tama Zenshoen, described him as "a sun who shined on everyone, nurturing them and helping them grow.... You encouraged us, you gave us a dream. You taught us what it means to live."

Dr. Fujio Otani passed away in December, 2010. He was 86 years old.