Under Japan’s past policy to isolate persons with leprosy, those diagnosed with the disease were taken from their homes and placed in sanatoriums. If they tried to escape or otherwise resist authority, each sanatorium had a place to confine patients deemed troublemakers.
The facility at National Sanatorium Kuriu-Rakusenen in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture, was especially severe. Known euphemistically as a “special ward,” it offered nothing in the way of treatment, only hardship and misery.
It was built in 1938 and used until 1947. During that period, a total of 93 people were placed in detention, of whom 23 are said to have died.
The decision to lock someone up rested with the chief of each sanatorium, who had the authority to discipline a patient on the pretext of maintaining good order within the leprosarium. There was no such thing as a trial, and people were incarcerated without any regard to their human rights.
Kusatsu had a fearsome reputation among sanatorium inmates and people were sent there from all over the country. Conditions in the “special ward” were harsh, with temperatures in the eight individual cells dropping well below freezing in winter.
Today, all that remains of the original structure are its foundations. But a replica has been built at the instigation of sanatorium residents. It opened earlier this year to show how state authorities violated their human rights.
During excavation work in 2013 that preceded construction, various items were uncovered. Among them was this padlock, one of several that were found. It symbolizes the oppressive nature of a facility whose inmates’ only “crime” was to contract a disease for which they were despised and stigmatized.