Leprosy, Legal Mobilization, and the Public Sphere in Japan and South Korea

Published date01 September 2014
Date01 September 2014
Leprosy, Legal Mobilization, and the Public Sphere
in Japan and South Korea
Celeste L. Arrington
This article addresses the question of what gets transmitted in cross-national
diffusion and why. It does so by analyzing the spread of rights-based activism
from Japanese to South Korean leprosy (Hansen’s disease) survivors in the
2000s. Previous scholarship would predict extensive diffusion of mobilizing
frames and tactics, especially since Korean lawyers learned an effective legal
mobilization template while working with Japanese lawyers to win compensa-
tion for Korean leprosy survivors mistreated by Japanese colonial authorities
before 1945. Yetthe form of subsequent activism by Korean leprosy survivors
for redress from the Korean government differed from the original Japanese
model. This case suggests the need for scope conditions on theories about
isomorphism and the agency of brokers. In particular, it draws attention to
how the structure of a country’s public sphere—and especially its legal pro-
fession, news media, and activist sector—affects the feasibility of imported
innovations related to activism and legal mobilization.
Rights-based activism spread among East Asia’s leprosy commu-
nities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stigmatized and misunder-
stood through much of history, the chronic skin ailment leprosy
(also called Hansen’s disease) has been known to be rarely infec-
tious and fully treatable since the 1950s.1If detected early, it no
longer disfigures sufferers as in past generations. Yet throughout
I presented an earlier version of this article at the 2011 annual meeting of the Law and
Society Association. I thank the members of the panel, the editors of the Law and Society
Review, four anonymous reviewers, Hiroshi Fukurai, Mark Levin, Rachel Stern, Sunil Kim,
Henry Farrell, and Paul Wahlbeck for their insightful feedback. I benefited from a fellow-
ship year at the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University and a year as the
Ginny and Robert Loughlin Founders’ Circle Member in the School of Social Science at the
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The George Washington University’s Sigur
Center for Asian Studies also provided generous research support.
Please direct all correspondence to Celeste Arrington, Department of Political Science,
The George WashingtonUniversity, 2115 G Street NW, Suite 440, Washington,DC 20052;
e-mail: cla@gwu.edu.
1A note on terminology: “leper” is pejorative and thus avoided here. In 1995 and
1999, respectively, Japanese and Korean Hansen’s disease survivors persuaded their gov-
ernments to replace the term leprosy (raibyo¯/nabyeong) with “Hansen’s disease” in official
documents. But since “leprosy” is the more common term in the American medical and
social sciences, I use Hansen’s disease and leprosy interchangeably.
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 3 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
the twentieth century, the thousands of survivors of the disease still
living in Japan and South Korea (the Republic of Korea, ROK)
endured multifaceted rights infringements due to state policies and
social prejudice. Beginning in Japan in 1998, leprosy survivors
started claiming restitution from the state (kokka baisho¯) for the
forcible institutionalization, vasectomies, and abortions they had
suffered. After a landmark court ruling in 2001 found that the
Japanese government had violated leprosy survivors’ constitutional
rights to dignity and freedom of movement, Japan’s prime minister
officially apologized and the Diet enacted sweeping compensation
legislation. Japanese leprosy survivors’ 2001 victory and Japanese
lawyers’ transnational activism prompted elderly Korean and Tai-
wanese leprosy survivors to claim compensation for their suffering
under Japanese colonial rule. The ensuing transnational legal
battle led Japan to revise the 2001 law and compensate these
elderly claimants in 2006. The Korean National Assembly subse-
quently passed legislation in 2007 to provide state aid to victims of
postwar leprosy-related persecution. And Taiwan started compen-
sating leprosy survivors in 2008. Both laws were passed in response
to Korean and Taiwanese leprosy survivors’ domestic activism,
which drew explicitly on the earlier Japanese movement.
Focusing on the diffusion of mobilizing tactics and frames from
Japan to Korea, I use the little-known case of East Asian leprosy
survivors’ activism to explore what gets transmitted and why. This
case is analytically interesting not just because transborder collabo-
ration and learning occurred at a moment of rising tensions over
historical memory. The differences between Hansen’s disease-
related activism in Japan and Korea are also surprising in the
context of what previous scholarship would consider ideal condi-
tions for mobilizing tactics and frames to diffuse. Korean leprosy
survivors and their lawyers benchmarked the 2001 Japanese law.
Many also collaborated with Japanese lawyers in the transnational
campaign for restitution from Japan and learned how to organize a
legal team to sue the state, construct legal claims for redress, and
use publicity to gain supporters. As the leader of Korea’s leprosy
community explained in 2009, “we could only claim redress from
our own government because the Japanese had won compensation
in 2001.”2Previous scholarship indicates that such collaboration
among determined innovators, geographic and cultural proximity,
these countries’ similar legal institutions, and Japanese and Korean
leprosy survivors’ analogous identities and grievances would facili-
tate movement diffusion from Japan to Korea (e.g., Givan, Roberts,
and Soule 2010a). Especially since the Japanese movement was so
2Interview with Lim Du-seong, legislator and leprosy survivor, Seoul, February 5,
564 Leprosy, Legal Mobilization, and the Public Sphere

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