Debate on the eugenics in prewar Japan


Institute of Community Medicine, University of Tsukuba, 1-1-1 Tenodai, Tsukuba City, Ibaraki-ken 305-8575, Japan
Tel. 0298-533068, Fax. 0298-533099


This paper discusses the links between psychiatry and eugenics movement that developed before World War II. In the late 1920s, eugenics became an urgent matter as a means of solving the problem of overpopulation. In 1930, the Japanese Society of National Hygiene was founded, the purpose of which was to study the element in the population having malignant heredity. The enactment of Sterilisierungsgesetz of 1933 in Germany aroused heated debate about eugenics among psychiatrists and the specialists. Opponents criticized the excesses of Germany's legislation and demanded more careful consideration, suggesting that the knowledge of heredity was not sufficient to justify taking such radical measures. On the other hand, proponents of sterilization argued that it would be reasonable to sacrifice a minority for the sake of the Japanese nation. The Ministry of Health conducted a survey of families of mentally ill people, and contended that some forms of mental illness were strongly inheritable. In 1940, the Diet passed the bill for the National Eugenics Law, which aimed to foster an increase in the number of healthy population by improving the people's physical constitution. The law stipulated that sterilization could be performed on patients with specific disorders: hereditary mental illness and deficiency, as well as serious types of hereditary morbid character and malformation. The number of sterilization totaled 538 between the period of 1941 to 1947 when the law was abolished. For the most part, these were persons with severe mental illness or deficiency. This figure appears to be rather small when compared to that in Germany, where over 56,000 persons were sterilized just within the year of 1934 alone. The reason for this limited practice of sterilization in Japan is not clear. However, two major factors seem to have hindered the practice. First, since there were relatively few mental hospitals at that time, it was difficult to deal systematically with patients meeting the sterilization criteria. Second, even though some leading psychiatrists in academic circles argued for value of the project, most doctors were reluctant to become involved in the practice.


Panel 5C   (Degeneration)
Wednesday, 15 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999