When Japan opened its first national leprosaria in the early part of the 20th century, marriage between patients was not permitted. Only couples who were already married by the time they entered the sanatorium were allowed to live together.
Quite soon, however, the authorities changed their policy. The idea was to make compulsory institutionalization a less daunting prospect for those diagnosed with leprosy and to make inmates feel more settled in sanatorium life.
But while marriage was permitted, starting a family was not. Husbands had to undergo sterilization and their wives would be forced to have an abortion if they accidentally became pregnant.
Living arrangements were far from satisfactory. As there were no married quarters other than for the small number of couples who had married prior to admission, husbands would visit the female dormitories in the evening to spend the night with their wives, who lived in rooms they shared with seven other women. These “commuter relationships” continued beyond World War II.
Eventually, married quarters were built, but initially this was little improvement on the previous arrangement. Three to four couples had to share a small room of between 10 to 12.5 tatami mats in size, as shown in this model on display at the National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Tokyo.
Those in relatively good health would often be placed with those suffering from disabilities, such as blindness, so they could look after them. At night, couples would stand a low table on its side to partition themselves off from their neighbors and give themselves a modicum of privacy. But it was impossible to forget they were not alone, and living in such close proximity could be a source of stress that eventually led some people to have nervous breakdowns.
As there were not enough rooms to meet the demand for married accommodation, some couples had to continue in “commuter relationships” as they waited for someone to die and a space to open up in the shared marriage quarters. What they really wanted, needless to say, was to have a room of their own.
With patients also pushing for better healthcare and nursing, it was a question of priorities as to when private married quarters were built. While the timing varied from sanatorium to sanatorium, private accommodation was gradually introduced from the 1950s and by end of the 1960s, every married couple had their own quarters.