Tokiji Suzuki entered National Sanatorium Kuryu Rakusen-en in Gunma Prefecture, Japan, in 1941. He was admitted with his father after both had been diagnosed with leprosy.
Conditions were harsh and Suzuki’s health rapidly deteriorated over the following years; his father died soon after the end of World War II.
Suzuki’s younger brother and youngest sister, Hiroko, attended the sanatorium nursery, although neither had leprosy. On finishing their compulsory education, they went out into the world, but struggled.
Hiroko returned to the sanatorium, where she married, but committed suicide at the age of 26. In despair, Suzuki twice tried to take his own life, but without success.
It was around this time that he read about a Jewish artist in a Nazi concentration camp who had taught children how to draw so that they could experience the joy of living and feel hope—even for a short time. Suzuki decided to take up painting and started a painting club; members were taught by volunteers.
As his eyesight worsened, another sister took care of him. She accompanied him to his studio and attached his brush to his hand with a belt so that he could work.
“I paint from my heart. For me, painting pictures is proof that I am alive. It is my validation as a human being,” he wrote in the introduction to a book of his collected works, published in 2002.
Suzuki was one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking compensation from the government for years of incarceration in the sanatorium in violation of their constitutional rights—the plaintiffs won.
The work shown here, which he painted in 1998, is titled Hiroko Holding a Cat. (“Hiroko! You died when you were 26. Hiroko – my little sister.”) One of a number of paintings on the subject of his sister, it is in the collection of the residents’ committee of Kuryu Rakusen-en and can also be seen on line with other works by Suzuki at www.leprosyhistory.org Suzuki died in 2003 at the age of 77.