International Symposium on Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease History as Heritage of Humanity

Tokyo, Japan

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honor to have all of you gathered here at this important symposium. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to the world-acclaimed film director and storyteller, Mr. Hayao Miyazaki, for specially agreeing to speak at this Human Heritage symposium.

The modern treatment for leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was established in the 1980s and leprosy has now been eliminated as a public health problem in almost all countries of the world.

With the great strides that have been made against the disease as a health issue, leprosy has come to be seen as a “disease of the past”; around the world, leprosy hospitals and leprosaria are closing down.

More than 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to visit the island state of Malta in the Mediterranean. There was no longer a leprosy hospital or leprosarium on the island, so I went to see the place where patients had once lived.

All that remained were some small stone markers, rubble and wooden debris; the entire area was covered in weeds. There was no evidence that people affected by leprosy had once lived there, nor anything to commemorate the past.

Even so, I took to reflecting on the lives they must have led there.

It concerns me that, as time passes and hospitals and leprosaria are razed or redeveloped for modern usage, there will be nothing to remind us of the lives of people who were affected by leprosy.

Not only leprosaria and hospitals, but diaries, photographs, paintings and memories and records of everyday life in times gone by are being lost. Unless someone makes an effort to preserve them, they will be lost forever.

As all of you know, leprosy has been associated with severe prejudice and discrimination, including forced isolation, throughout the history of humankind. It is important to remember how society has treated people affected by leprosy and their family members. The history of leprosy is often mentioned as “negative heritage” or “negative history”. It is very important for us to pass on to future generations the experience and record of the discrimination suffered by people affected by leprosy, so that humankind never forgets.

Yet, at the same time, the history of leprosy is also one in which people affected by the disease have shone brightly in facing up to and overcoming discrimination, even in the most desperate of circumstances. They lost their identity, their home, their family, friends and social ties—and yet, the path they have taken as human beings teaches us the strength and tolerance that human beings are capable of. It is an invaluable history.

There are already movements to pass on the history of the fight against leprosy to the next generation in different ways.

My long-time friend, Mr. Yasuji Hirasawa, who lives at National Sanatorium Tama Zenshoen, visits primary and junior high schools to relate his own experience to children. At the same time, he teaches them about the importance of having compassion for others and about how people should live.

Adjacent to the sanatorium, a National Hansen’s Disease Museum has been built. Many initiatives are taking place in order to preserve the history of leprosy.

In the Philippines, on the island of Culion, where people with leprosy were once isolated, buildings that once served the leprosy colony are finding other uses, one of them as a museum. In various locations in Europe, meanwhile, movements have begun to preserve such facilities as cultural assets.

This three-day symposium is a time for participants to share the history of leprosy and to consider what each of us can do to pass on that history to the generations to come. You will be contributing your experiences and ideas and I sincerely hope that as the history of leprosy starts to fade, your discussions will serve as an important step toward preserving that history for future generations.