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After Decades Locked Away, Japanese Lepers Salute Life

Asia: Law that kept patients isolated, despite a cure, was overturned in March. Still, many fear ongoing stigma.

June 30, 1996|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the early 1970s, conditions had improved considerably. New cases were being treated as outpatients, and doctors had begun to enter patients' rooms and ride in cars with them. New housing was built. Telephones and televisions were brought in. Now patients live in small cottages, comparable in size to the dwelling of a Tokyo bachelor. Patients have gradually been allowed to go off the grounds when they wish. Life today, Otani said, is better than in any normal rest home.

But socially, the stigma remains. "Patients can travel to London and Rome, but they can't go back to their hometowns," said K. Yamaguchi of the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.

Most of the 600 patients at Tamazenseien say they will stay despite the law's repeal. The government has promised to maintain the leprosariums as nursing homes.

"If this had happened 20 or 30 years ago, we could have started afresh," said Ko Michihiro, 62, a thin man whose slight facial scars are the only sign of his bout with leprosy. "But now we are old. We don't have the time or energy to fight the prejudice that awaits us."

'No Love, No Love'

Some have managed to find love here, but most express great sadness when they speak of the relationships they have forgone because of their exile.

For Fumie Suzuki, it is talk of children that brings sorrow to her voice. For Kenjiro Toda, 64, a small, delicate man, it is the pain of knowing that six of seven siblings won't acknowledge he exists.

For Osamu Usami, 70, a stubborn man who peers through thick glasses, it is life without a beloved. Men outnumber women three to one among patients, so few could marry. When asked if he ever had a wife, he pointed to his heart and said wistfully in English pulled from his engineering education 50 years ago, "No love, no love."

But as patients sat sipping ceremonial sake from cedar cups, they brimmed with thanks for Otani and pondered the meaning of their hard-won freedom.

"I'm so happy," Toda said. "Nothing has really changed. But psychologically, everything is different now."

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