Health, Welfare and Labor Minister Takumi Nemoto, right, bows after Eugenics Protection Law was passed at parliament's upper house in Tokyo. Picture: Toshiyuki Matsumoto/Kyodo News via AP

Tokyo - Japan's government apologised Wednesday to tens of thousands of victims forcibly sterilised under a now-defunct Eugenics Protection Law, which was designed to "prevent the birth of poor-quality descendants," and promised to pay compensation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he was offering "sincere remorse and heartfelt apology" to the victims. It came after the parliament earlier Wednesday enacted legislation to provide redress measures, including 3.2 million yen ($28,600) compensation for each victim.

An estimated 25,000 people were given unconsented sterilisation while the 1948 Eugenics Protection Law was in place until 1996. The law allowed doctors to sterilise people with disabilities. It was quietly renamed as the Maternity Protection Law in 1996, when the discriminatory condition was removed.

The redress legislation acknowledges that many people were forced to have operations to remove their reproductive organs or radiation treatment to get sterilised, causing them tremendous pain mentally and physically.

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto said that as head of the department in charge of the compensation, he will do utmost to provide the one-time redress money for the entitled recipients, many of them aging and handicapped, as soon as possible.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his statement issued hours later, said the same problem should never be repeated. "We will do all we can to achieve a society where no one is discriminated against, whether they have illnesses or handicaps, and live together while respecting each other's personality and individuality."

The government had until recently maintained the sterilisations were legal at the time.

This general view shows a plenary session of the upper house after the Eugenics Protection Law was passed in parliament in Tokyo. Japan's government apologized to tens of thousands of victims forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenics Protection Law and promised to pay compensation. Picture: Toshiyuki Matsumoto/Kyodo News via AP

The apology and the redress law follow a series of lawsuits by victims who came forward recently after breaking decades of silence. That prompted lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties to draft a compensation package to make amends for the victims.

The plaintiffs are seeking about 30 million yen each ($268,000) in growing legal actions that are spreading around the country, saying the government's implementation of the law violated the victims' right to self-determination, reproductive health and equality. They say the government redress measures are too small for their suffering.

In addition to the forced sterilisations, more than 8,000 others were sterilised with consent, though likely under pressure, while nearly 60,000 women had abortions because of hereditary illnesses. However, the redress law does not cover those who had to abort their pregnancy, according to Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Among them were about 10 000 leprosy patients who had been confined in isolated institutions until 1996, when the leprosy prevention law was also abolished. The government has already offered compensation and an apology to them for its forced isolation policy.

AP