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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

FILM: Love in a Small Place

A new film documents the lives of an elderly couple on an island sanatorium in Japan.


Scenes from the film: Yasue and Taka Tojo at home (top); Taka looks out over Oshima Island's 61 hectares.

Takashi and Yasue Tojo, a couple in their 70s, live on an island in Japan's Inland Sea. Their home is National Sanatorium Oshima Seishoen, one of 13 facilities in the country where the Japanese government once isolated people with leprosy under the Leprosy Prevention Law. Takashi arrived in 1946, Yasue in 1948. They have been there ever since.

When filmmaker Kazuyuki Nozawa came to know the Tojos on a visit to the island in 2005, he was struck by the way the couple supported each other. Yasue is blind, having lost her sight to the disease when she was 24, and suffers other leprosy-related disabilities. Takashi ("Taka") is also disabled, but to a lesser degree. Over the next six years, Nozawa returned repeatedly to Oshima Island to film the Tojos. The result is the documentary 61 Hectares - Kizuna.

The first part of the title refers to the size of the island, which is less than one kilometer square; the second part is the Japanese word for bond - in this case both the legal fetters that confined the couple to the island as well as the ties of love that Nozawa found so affecting and which inspired his film.

Takashi and Yasue married in 1951, when he was 21 and she was 18. "Taka has looked after me well all these years," Yasue explains in the film. "At first, when I was still healthy, I took care of him. I washed and ironed his clothes, repaired his suit. But that happy time lasted only four or five years. After that, it was Taka who looked after me. The husband got the worst deal in this marriage."


The film shows scenes from their everyday routine - Yasue undergoing rehabilitation, Takashi at work on his vegetable patch, the couple eating meals and attending church - as well as their preparations for a karaoke contest that will take them to a different sanatorium in another part of the country.

Yasue does most of the talking, as Taka listens or gets on with the household chores. She also writes poems, which reflect her tender feelings for her husband. A poem about Taka doing the laundry is "my way of saying thank you," she explains. "It's really how I feel happy when you do it without making any fuss," she tells him.

The film does not dwell on the reason why they are on Oshima, but focuses on the life they have made together, how they cope with their disabilities and the bond between them. The reason for their isolated existence does not go unremarked, however.

"They told me, 'You'll be cured in three years.' But it was a lie. A trick to enforce the isolation law," Yasue explains. "I was so sure I'd be going home in three years. People who had been here 30, 40 years laughed at me. 'Idiot, nobody goes home…' Everyone had been fooled into coming by the same lies."


Yasue draws strength from her Christian faith - only Jesus is more important to her than Taka, she says. Taka converted after he promised God that he would if Yasue recovered from a fever.

The attitude of the outside world to those on the island is encapsulated in an anecdote Yasue relates about the days when residents used to be called "zashiki buta" - a term likening them to pigs that lay around all day, getting fed and taking it easy. It was even used by some sanatorium inmates about their fellows. "It was terrible, especially for those of us who had always worked hard and done our best. It hurt a lot," Yasue said.

Toward the end of the film, she tells Nozawa: "There's one thing I really want the world to know. There are people who lived on this island, who did their best in life, despite the leprosy."

Viewers will come to know an engaging couple, brought together by the disease, who have cared for one another for 60 years.

Flyer for 61 Hectares - Kizuna. At upper right is an image of Yasue on her wedding day in 1951, aged 18. The film is available with English subtitles.


Seeing my glass eyes
My husband said
The black pupils
Brought back
The beauty of my youth.
(Yasue Tojo)