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  • For the Purity of the Nation:Ogawa Masako and the Gendered Ethics of Spring on the Small Island (Kojima no haru)
  • Kathryn M. Tanaka (bio)

Hansen’s disease has a long history in Japan, but it was not directly targeted by legislation until Law Number 11, the “Law Concerning the Prevention of Leprosy” (Rai Yobō ni Kan Suru Ken), was passed in 1907.1 The main object of the law was the confinement of Hansen’s disease sufferers with no family or residence, such as itinerants who begged at temples and shrines.2 Thus patients who received care at home were exempt from quarantine.3 To treat vagrant patients, Law Number 11 divided the nation’s prefectures into five groups and established joint-prefectural public hospitals that began accepting sufferers in 1909.4

Mitsuda Kensuke (1876–1964) was Japan’s most influential leprologist and a proponent of isolation policies. Originally employed in a small isolation ward in a Tokyo hospital, he later worked at Zensei Hospital (Zensei Byōin, today Tama Zenshō-en), at the time one of the prefectural hospitals in Tokyo. He lobbied the Japanese government to establish a national facility on an island, based on similar quarantine hospitals in the Philippines and Hawai‘i. At Mitsuda’s urging, the Japanese government established the first national sanatorium, Nagashima Aisei-en (hereafter Aisei-en), on an island in the Inland Sea. Mitsuda became the first director of the institution. [End Page 93]

Aisei-en was designed as a model institution, with the first residents being handpicked by Mitsuda in 1931 to accompany him from Zensei Hospital to the new facility on the island.5 Mitsuda also hired some of the staff, and in 1934 he employed a young woman named Ogawa Masako (1902–43). In the late 1930s, Ogawa and Mitsuda were often mentioned together due to Ogawa’s bestselling memoir Spring on the Small Island (Kojima no haru, 1938), about the travels Mitsuda asked her to take into the Japanese countryside to raise awareness of Hansen’s disease and encourage sufferers to submit to quarantine. Ogawa’s memoir also describes her work toward the goal she shared with Mitsuda: the eradication of Hansen’s disease in Japan.

Made into a 1940 film of the same name, Spring on the Small Island turned Ogawa into a media darling, lauded in women’s magazines. Indeed, the attention given to Ogawa was so widespread that Arai Eiko has referred to it as the “Spring on the Small Island phenomenon” (Kojima no haru genshō).6 In popular media in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ogawa was celebrated as a self-sacrificing heroine who destroyed her own health to help those suffering from Hansen’s disease, then known as leprosy (rai), an illness that has provoked worldwide fear and discrimination due to its unclear etiology and disfiguring physical effects. This fear was heightened because, until the effective drug therapy Promin came into use in Japan in 1947, the disease was incurable. Indeed, the illness was so feared that employment at a treatment facility was often considered too dangerous for women, and Ogawa went to great lengths to convince Aisei-en hospital director Mitsuda Kensuke to employ her.7

Ogawa’s personal life lent itself to the melodramatic narrative retold in women’s magazines. Born in 1902, she graduated from high school in 1919 before marrying the politician Higai Senzō (1890–1953) in 1920. Their marriage ended in 1923, and Ogawa enrolled in Tokyo Women’s Medical University in 1924. Little is known of Ogawa’s marriage or the reasons for her divorce, although Higai was a minister of state and public figure at the time of the Spring on the Small Island boom. Ogawa herself was silent about this part of her life. Whatever the cause of their divorce, magazines stated that Ogawa’s unhappiness became her motivation to save others from an even worse fate.8 After a visit to Zensei Hospital, she became determined to devote her life to those who suffered from Hansen’s disease. She wrote letters and made repeat visits until she persuaded Mitsuda to employ her.

By the time Ogawa began her work at Aisei-en...


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pp. 93-114
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