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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

COLUMN: A First Visit to Sorokdo

International forum on Hansen’s disease provides historian with new perspectives.

A view of Sorok Island, South Korea (September 2015)

On 17 September 2015, the “Third International Hansen Forum” was held at Sorokdo National Hospital in South Jeolla Province, South Korea. Specialists in the treatment, care and socio-economic rehabilitation of people affected by Hansen’s disease gathered from South Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and Japan. I was invited to be one of the presenters from Japan and was making my first visit to Sorok Island.

These international forums are organized by the hospital and South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare to promote international cooperation on eliminating the disease, removing the stigma and helping people affected by leprosy move on with their lives.

The theme of the third forum was “Human Rights and Independent Lives of Ex-Hansen Patients.” Presentations included those on mental health issues in South Korea, national leprosy elimination programs and community-based support for people affected by leprosy in Vietnam and Myanmar, and healthcare for elderly residents at a Japanese sanatorium.

What I found remarkable was how many young volunteers attended the forum.

I talked about Hansen’s disease in Japan after the 1990s and the role of historical studies, arguing that historians should not only expose the failings of past government policy that violated patients’ human rights but use their research to help promote reconciliation between individuals affected by the disease and their families, society and the government. Mr. Sun-Bong Kang, a former patient living in Sorokdo, gave an impressive speech about his life and what he and his fellow residents do to support themselves.

While the audience seemed to consist mainly of hospital staff, what I found remarkable was how many young volunteers attended the forum. Many, including students, are active in Sorokdo and have stayed a long time. For me, the fact that one of the aims of the forum was to provide them with an educational opportunity seemed to show the hospital’s passion for enhancing understanding of Hansen’s disease among young people.


Korea was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. From 1916, the colonial authorities implemented a policy of isolating Hansen’s disease patients. Nevertheless, there exists a significant difference between South Korea and Japan in terms of the relationship between a sanitarium and society.

The different course taken by each nation in dealing with Hansen’s disease issues in the 70 years since the end of World War II may explain this. While Japan accelerated the institutionalization of the patients, Korea built resettlement villages as a way to integrate people affected by the disease into society.

Even after Japan abolished the Leprosy Prevention Law in 1996, and even after the major changes that followed the legal victory by sanitaria residents in the compensation lawsuits against the government in 2001, volunteer activities in sanitaria have not been as evident as in Sorokdo. Japanese sanitaria do not go out their way to accept volunteers and, practically speaking, there are only a limited number of roles that volunteers can fill.

The island’s museum depicts the lives of patients.

There is a museum showcasing Sorokdo’s past with a courtyard at the rear that serves as a communal area for residents. It looked as if their day-to-day lives and the space that tells their history have been naturally integrated. Some colonial-era buildings have been preserved as cultural assets.

The national hospital is now planning a number of major events to mark its 100th anniversary in 2016.* I respect it for the sincere efforts it is making to further enhance understanding of Hansen’s disease issues and promote international cooperation through these activities.

AUTHOR: Waka Hirokawa

Waka Hirokawa is Associate Professor of History at Senshu University in Tokyo.


* The forerunner of Sorokdo National Hospital, Sorokdo Jikei Hospital, was established by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1916.