Japanese singer marks 30 years of visiting leprosy colony

    Once every year, a Japanese singer takes her act on the road to a small island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, where she performs at a national sanatorium for former leprosy patients still living in isolation today.

    Singer-songwriter Tomoe Sawa, 52, has been visiting National Sanatorium Oshima Seishoen, located about 20 minutes by boat from Takamatsu, the capital city of Kagawa Prefecture in western Japan, for nearly three decades, deepening friendships with the residents there, all of whom have recovered from the disease.

    The sanatorium is “a place where I am welcomed as if it is my hometown by people who were forced into isolation as patients and deprived of their own hometowns,” Sawa said in a recent interview.

    The free concert held annually in August was attended this year by some 50 people from on and off the island, which is situated in the body of water separating the main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — three of the country’s four main islands.

    At the sanatorium, Sawa, whose wide-ranging genres include J-pop, jazz, folk, children’s songs and traditional “enka” ballads, sings songs about the history of the facility and also puts poems written by the residents to music she composes. Residents sing along with her.

    Takashi Tojo, a 93-year-old resident, sang Yuzo Kayama’s popular 1960s love ballad “I’ll Forever Be With You” in a deep baritone accompanied by Sawa on piano. When he said the line most familiar to everyone, “I’m so happy (being with you),” while thinking of his late wife, the audience erupted in boisterous cheers.

    Sawa’s first encounter with Oshima Seishoen dates back to 1971, when she was just six months old. Her father, who later became a pastor, took her with him to a service at a church in the sanatorium.

    The anti-leprosy law, initially enacted in 1907 and later revised before its abolition in 1996, was still in force. Under its provisions, leprosy patients were forced to live in leprosariums segregated from their family members and the rest of society.

    The residents were subjected to human rights violations, including forced sterilization and abortions, and it was rare to even see a baby at the Oshima Seishoen facility, as was the case at other sanatoria.

    Even within the church, space was segregated between off-island people and residents of the sanatorium. But Sawa would crawl over the “border” and patients who affectionately held her in their arms came to call her “Tomoe-chan.”

    In 1996, Sawa, whose maternal grandfather Kim So Ung was a Korean poet and scholar, made her first return to the island in 25 years. She was greeted by some 15 residents on the pier, who welcomed her through tears while calling her by her infant nickname. “I was so surprised they’d remembered me,” Sawa recalled.

    She then began to visit the island every year from her home in the Kanto region near Tokyo to talk, pray and, at times, even quarrel with the residents, deepening her bonds with them to the point that they could speak frankly about almost anything.

    In 2013, Kazuko To, a close friend who was an Oshima resident, died at the age of 83. Dismayed at being unable to meet her before she died and concerned about the future of the changing sanatorium, Sawa decided to relocate to the city of Okayama on the opposite shore of the island the following year. “I wanted to be close to them,” she said.

    The church’s congregation has dwindled to only a few members due to the aging of the population, making it difficult for the church to continue. Since 2016, Sawa, whose upbringing in Japan, South Korea and the United States allows her to speak three languages fluently, has been holding monthly services, inviting people from on and off the island to attend.

    Her concerts and monthly services also “create an excuse” for many people to visit an island they likely would never have reason to set foot on, suggested Sawa.

    There are 14 leprosy sanatoria in Japan, 13 of which are state-run and one that is privately operated. As of May 2023, 810 former patients with an average age of 87.9 resided in the national facilities, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

    Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic bacterial disease that mainly affects the skin, nerves, upper respiratory tract and the eyes. But it is not highly contagious, as was once believed, and is treatable.

    The government introduced a quarantine policy with no medical basis in 1907. Even after treatment was established following World War II and after the repeal of the anti-leprosy law in 1996, former patients remain in the leprosy colonies because of continued discrimination and prejudice, complications from the disease and due to their advanced age.

    The Oshima sanatorium had 35 residents with an average age of 86.9 as of November. Even after no one remains there, Sawa has resolved to continue singing the concerts on the island.

    “I want to continue to share the history of leprosy and the testimonies of those who have lived with this disease,” she said.

    By TTU
    Source: KYODO