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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

NEWS: Miyazaki’s Awakening

Film director reveals how a sanatorium and its residents influenced his art and outlook.

Looking life in the face: Hayao Miyazaki addresses a symposium in Tokyo on January 28

Celebrated film director Hayao Miyazaki was the guest speaker at the opening of a three-day international symposium in Tokyo at the end of January on leprosy history as a heritage of humanity.

Miyazaki, whose home is not far from National Sanatorium Tama Zenshoen in western Tokyo, described how his encounter with the sanatorium and its residents helped give shape to his 1997 animated historical fantasy Princess Mononoke

At the time, he had the idea for a film that didn’t feature samurai or nobles as the main characters, but showed the true face of the people — including beggars, outcasts and those with leprosy he had seen in old picture scrolls as part of his research. Setting foot in the sanatorium, those images came back to him and he knew there was no turning back.

Going to the sanatorium, paying his respects at the charnel house, visiting the museum, walking in the grounds and getting to know the residents became Miyazaki’s ritual during the making of Princess Mononoke. He returned again and again.

These repeat visits and what he absorbed from them convinced him “there can be no question of doing things carelessly; I will make this film looking life in the face.” The characters include metal workers swathed in bandages. He doesn’t shy away from the fact they have an incurable disease — a karmic illness, even — but said it was “imperative that I showed people, who, though suffering from a disease deemed ‘incurable’, tried to live with dignity and courage.”

He is resolved to ensure that the hardships people affected by leprosy have suffered are never forgotten. As the population of the sanatorium declines, he has donated money to restore a former dormitory as a heritage site and is a supporter of preserving the “human rights forest” planted in the sanatorium grounds for future generations.


In its message for World Leprosy Day on January 31, the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations (ILEP) called for proactive, early detection of leprosy to prevent the disease being transmitted to children and lifelong disabilities developing.

ILEP President Jan van Berkel said that “thousands of children affected by leprosy are not diagnosed early enough and as a result suffer from preventable disabilities caused by the delayed diagnosis. We must improve our proactive, early detection of leprosy to prevent these tragic consequences.”

In 2014, 213,899 new cases of leprosy were reported worldwide. Of these, the proportion of children accounted for 8.8%, and those with Grade 2, or visible, disabilities at time of diagnosis accounted for 6.6%.