Japan’s Negative Legacy of LeprosyMuseum at former detention center seeks to eliminate prejudice and discrimination

The National Sanatorium Kuriu-Rakusenen is a leprosy sanatorium located in northwestern Gunma Prefecture in the town of Kusatsu. At its peak, the sanatorium housed more than 1,300 residents and today 87 people, whose average age is above 80 (as of January1, 2016), still live there. The grounds previously had a detention facility, referred to as “Jyu-Kanbo,” where many residents died. The Jyu-Kanbo National Museum of Detention for Hansen's Disease Patients, which features artifacts and reproductions of the structures, opened on this site in April 2014 to convey the negative legacy of this facility to future generations. The Nippon Foundation was entrusted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare with the management and operation of this facility and the National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Tokyo from April 2016.

Exterior of the Jyu-Kanbo National Museum

Located in the mountains at an elevation of more than 1,000 meters above sea level, winter temperatures at Kuriu-Rakusenen can fall to 20°C below zero. On a recent visit, despite being in mid-April, the temperature was 2°C below zero, and on the previous day a 30-centimeter snowfall had forced the closing of the road accessing the facility.

Even in mid-April, the road to Jyu-Kanbo was closed because of snow

Special Hospital Ward in name only

Jyu-Kanbo was built in 1938. At that time, persons who had contracted leprosy were forced to enter a sanatorium under the government’s quarantine policy, and some of these people resisted or escaped. To maintain order, therefore, each sanatorium had a confinement room, which was known as the kanbo (“cell”). The director of each sanatorium had the authority to discipline and confine residents who violated the sanatorium’s rules, and could imprison them at their own discretion without any kind of trial. Particularly rebellious individuals from sanatoriums across Japan were sent to the Jyu-Kanbo at Kuriu-Rakusenen for even more severe punishment (“Jyu” translates as “severe” in English). These people included residents accused of murder with no evidence.
The official name of this prison was “special hospital ward,” but it was a hospital ward in name only; patients were not given any medical treatment.

A sentence etched into a wall proclaiming the prisoner’s innocence (reproduction)

Enclosed by imposing walls approximately 4.5 meters high, Jyu-Kanbo had eight individual cells. To prevent escape, there were several heavy doors locked with strong padlocks between the entrance to the facility and the individual cells. The individual cells were roughly four tatami mats (approximately 6.6 square meters), and although they had walls and a roof, they provided almost no protection against the elements, meaning they were like a sauna in the summer and in the winter, the thin, worn futon mattresses would freeze to the floor. The only exposure to the outside world was a window about the size of a mail slot for light, the hatch through which food was passed, and a shallow (to prevent escape) hole for a toilet. Inmates received two meals a day, consisting only of rice cooked with barley and miso soup with no solid ingredients. Almost no light came into the room, making it difficult to tell the difference between light and day.

Curator Makoto Kitahara at the Jyu-Kanbo entrance (full-size reproduction)
Overhead-view model of Jyu-Kanbo’s eight individual cells
The doors to the cells were 15 centimeters thick. There was almost no light inside when they were closed.
Inmates only had one thin futon mattress and one cover in summer and winter.

Imprisonment led to 23 deaths

During the nine years that Jyu-Kanbo operated, 93 persons were imprisoned under the pretense of being “hospitalized.” Of these, 23 died while imprisoned or soon after being released, as a result of exposure or starvation. Several inmates even committed suicide by hanging to escape the harsh environment. The longest sentence served was 549 days, and that inmate was not able to survive a second winter and died in the cell.

Makoto Kitahara, Jyu-Kanbo’s curator, notes that this attitude is not limited to leprosy, and can been seen in other phenomena like bullying and warfare, and arises from an emotional response to exclude anyone who is “different.” His hope is that the Jyu-Kanbo National Museum will serve as a model to understand this fact on a personal level.

Inside the museum (left to right): Panel display with profiles of inmates; Scale model of Jyu-Kanbo; A slide show recreates life at Jyu-Kanbo; Full-size reproduction of the Jyu-Kanbo entrance

Note: The Jyu-Kanbo National Museum of Detention for Hansen's Disease Patients, located on the grounds of the National Sanatorium Kuriu-Rakusenen in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture, seeks to promote a correct understanding of leprosy and eliminate prejudice and discrimination against persons affected by leprosy, by functioning as a focal point for the preservation of documents and the creation and dissemination of surveys and research related to leprosy.

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