Ryuhei Kawada and his lonely crusade

Monzurul Huq
It is indeed very hard to imagine how a ten-year old boy would react if he was told that he has been infected with HIV since his early childhood and his infection might take the form of AIDS, making his already complicated life more difficult to sustain. For a ten-year old boy, we presume there is not much difference between HIV and AIDS, and also between the thin line of separation that childhood understanding puts between life and death. For life, in reality, is yet to take a head start for him, that would eventually take him to the uncharted waters of the real world where many of our childhood dreams get easily shattered.

For Ryuhei Kawada, the newly elected member of the upper house of the Japanese Diet, this unthinkable childhood was a reality in the true sense, as one fine morning when he was ten-year old, his mother told him of the virus that he was infected with while he was going through the treatment of a disease that he was born with. She also warned him that the virus might one day develop into a more deadly form known as AIDS.

Kawada was diagnosed with hemophilia when he was 6 months old. The treatment of the disease required the use of blood products, and Japan at that time had no shortage of such products imported mainly from the United States. It was the post-Vietnam war period, and as the demand for blood products in battlefields suddenly dwindled, there was abundant supply in the market.

For medical facilities and drug companies, it was welcome news as they could get the products at a bargain price without much difficulty. Drug companies in Japan were simply too happy to find an abundant source of blood products in the US market, and started to import such products bypassing the rigorous quality control process that such imported items are required to go through.

Large quantities of unheated blood products were imported to treat patients who suffered from diseases like hemophilia. It was simply the careless attitude of the controlling body, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, as well as drug companies that are interested more in making big profit, which permitted tainted blood products to get into the market. Kawada became one of the early victims of that careless attitude of the Japanese government and pharmaceutical companies.

At ten he was told of the disease he was suffering from, and though he was not sure of what it really meant for him he eventually became aware of it, and later joined a group of other hemophilia patients who, too, were victims of the same unheated blood products, to file a lawsuit against the central government and the drug companies.

None of the plaintiffs initially disclosed their names, and Kawada too remained anonymous. It was a deliberate decision on part of the victims, as they thought they would be discriminated against in the society, like it happened in the past with those who suffered from leprosy and some other diseases.

The Japanese society in the past had been notoriously unkind to those who suffered from diseases considered to be incurable. But at age 19 Kawada decided to go public, and disclosed his name as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It was a brave decision, and he was convinced that his disclosure would result in greater public attention to the problem and would eventually help the HIV victims to gain public sympathy for their plight, and would force the government to take measures not only to ease their sufferings, but also to ensure that what happened due to mere negligence would not be repeated again.

Kawada, though right on the first count, was wrong on the second point, as the recent pension record debacle proved once again that it is indeed very difficult to clean public offices of such vices as negligence and arrogance.

A year after Kawada went public with his identity, the health ministry in 1996 apologized to the plaintiffs for the HIV scandal, that eventually paved the way for an out-of-court settlement. All along his struggle, Kawada’s mother, Etsuko, stood firmly beside him and provided the essential support that he needed. She was elected to the lower house of the Japanese parliament in 2000 and, during the three-year period she served as a lawmaker, she tried relentlessly to compel the government to take measures to ease the sufferings of the HIV victims.

The same responsibility now had fallen on the shoulder of her 31-year old son, who has been elected to the upper house running as an independent candidate from Tokyo.

Kawada addressed a press conference recently at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where he outlined the basic policies that he plans to uphold at the upper house of the parliament and also made candid opinion on a wide range of issues that he considers crucial for Japan.

In the July election he received more than 680,000 votes, which took him by surprise as he still remembered what many around him told after hearing of his desire to run for an upper house seat. The shared opinion of his friends and acquaintances was that, he could run, but probably never would receive support anywhere closer to the number needed to be elected.

But he continued campaigning with the clear message that the Japanese society needs to correct the mistakes that had been done in the past, and if elected, he, a victim of arrogance and negligence of the government and drug companies, would make every effort to correct those mistakes of the past so that the society never again repeats the same blunder.

He is particularly angry on the government over missing pension records and believes that it too is the result of arrogance on part of the ministry of health, labor and welfare. He is convinced that all those who voted for him are worried very much about the state of the Japanese society and they want to see the society change. As a result, changing the Japanese society and making the country a more tolerant and caring one to its citizens are what he now sees as his mission as an independent lawmaker.

Kawada’s interests are not only confined within the narrow scope of public health and welfare issues. He is a relentless fighter for the protection of basic human rights and peace in the world. He would like to see Japan coming out of the narrow vision of economic gain where the idea of making profit is placed before that of human life. As a lawmaker he intends to deal with issues of broader perspective as well, which will make the whole world a better place to live for every human being.

At the press conference Kawada made it clear that he would like to see an end to Japanese self defense forces joining the war efforts of other countries in the name of fighting terrorism. According to him there exists many other ways to fight terrorism and war should not be the desired option for Japan.

It should be noted that the bill to extend the mandate of a special anti-terrorism law that allows Japanese participation in refueling US and other allied nations ships stationed in the Indian Ocean is set to be debated at the upcoming extra-ordinary session of the Japanese parliament. Kawada is no doubt going to join hands with the opposition block to see the bill is sent back without the much-needed approval of the upper chamber.

Monzurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.

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