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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

Clock ticking as Councilor Kawada goes after what has long ailed Japan

Staff writer

Newly elected Upper House lawmaker Ryuhei Kawada was diagnosed with hemophilia soon after he was born.

News photo
Newly elected Upper House member Ryuhei Kawada is interviewed recently by The Japan Times. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Like many other Japanese hemophiliacs, Kawada began being treated with foreign blood products that were not heated. Warnings had been issued overseas in the 1980s, however, about the dangers of nonheated blood products and they had been barred from use abroad.

And like many fellow hemophiliacs here, Kawada subsequently became infected with HIV. Some 2,000 Japanese became infected via unheated blood products starting in the 1970s, when the products were introduced to Japan, until the problem was exposed in the 1980s in a scandal that shook the country's health-care system to the core.

Critics say the government, aware of the risk, should have acted sooner.

Today, Kawada, 31, is a sturdy-looking man. Wearing a T-shirt and using a safety pin to secure his Diet member's badge, he met with The Japan Times for an interview in his office in Tokyo's Yotsuya district.

Running without any party backing, Kawada was the only independent out of a field of 20 candidates to win a seat in the July 29 Upper House election after gaining strong support from swing voters in the Tokyo constituency. He campaigned for a fundamental change in government.

Kawada was 10 years old when his mother informed him of his HIV infection. At an age when the future should hold promise, he thought his life was already coming to an end.

"The first thing that came to mind when my mother told me I was infected with HIV was that I would not live a long life," Kawada said. It was a difficult reality to accept. "I wanted to forget about the disease, not think about it. And most of all, I had to desperately hide the fact that I had HIV."

This was the 1980s, Kawada recalled, and Japan was in a panic over this mysterious disease that was beginning to take the world by storm. It was still a long time before anyone knew how to prevent it from quickly claiming the life of a carrier. Recalled Kawada: "AIDS meant death."

There was also the fear of social ostracism in a culture where HIV was — and remains — a deeply entrenched taboo, a disease associated with other cultures in far-away places that "regular" Japanese do not get.

"I couldn't even tell any of my friends . . . there was such strong discrimination against AIDS at that time," Kawada said. "There was a time when I didn't feel like doing anything because I wasn't going to live long, and everything just seemed like a waste of time."

Kawada spent his teenage years in silence, but things slowly began to change. For one, promising new treatments suppressing the virus were beginning to appear on the market.

"I began to have hope that I might live," Kawada said. "And the more I thought about my future, I began to realize that I needed to learn about my illness and the truth behind why I was infected."

Before long, an opportunity would present itself. In 1989, hemophiliacs infected with HIV through tainted-blood products filed a damages lawsuit against the government and drug companies that imported and sold the defective products. In 1993, when Kawada was 17 years old, he joined the lawsuit anonymously, viewing the court sessions as a means to learn the truth.

Lying to his school that he was going to the hospital, Kawada attended court sessions. In 1996, the plaintiffs won a historic settlement and received modest compensation.

For the first time in his life, Kawada was in an environment where people outside his family knew he was infected with HIV and — to his surprise — didn't condemn him.

This gave Kawada the courage to open up to trusted allies.

"I was so happy because (my friends) didn't feel sorry for me," Kawada said. "One friend told me that I was the same person yesterday and today, and how he felt about me didn't change."

In 1995, Kawada decided to go public. "I didn't want to live in hiding anymore," he said. "I wanted to live, holding my head high."

The following year, Kawada and the other plaintiffs won the settlement and health minister Naoto Kan officially apologized. Kan, now a key figure in the Democratic Party of Japan, was a member of a small party in the then ruling bloc.

In October 2000, Kawada's mother, Etsuko, won as an independent Lower House candidate in a Tokyo by-election on a platform attacking the government and drug firms for negligence in the tainted-blood debacle. Kawada worked as her secretary until October 2003, when she lost her seat.

He entered politics with a similar motive. "I want to change this society, which continues to witness medical scandals," Kawada said, citing subsequent hepatitis debacles and deaths blamed on the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

Kawada particularly wants to remedy the pension record-keeping fiasco, improve nursing care and, most of all, educate fellow Japanese about AIDS and HIV.

But while personal experience has led him to focus on health matters, Kawada stresses that he is not a single-issue politician. For example, he said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's intention to revise the pacifist Constitution is a step "in the wrong direction."

Although Abe has not declared his position clearly, many opposition lawmakers, including Kawada, believe the prime minister is trying to amend Article 9 to enable collective self-defense.

In May, Abe launched a government panel to examine how far Japan should go in defending allies under attack — a move seen by critics as a shift toward remilitarization.

The government's current interpretation of the Constitution prohibits the exercise of collective self-defense, but the panel announced last week it will submit a report in November to approve such activity.

Article 9 stipulates that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." In the second clause, it states that "land, sea and air forces as well as other war potential will never be maintained." The ruling Liberal Democratic Party wants that clause revised to fit the current reality that the Self-Defense Forces are in fact Japan's military.

Kawada says the world is shifting toward disarmament while Japan is going the other way. "What we should actually do is try to bring (Japanese) society closer to the ideal world described in the Constitution," he said.

Kawada currently takes four types of powerful medicines every day to suppress HIV. He said he suffers severe side effects and feels ill. He doesn't know how long it will help him put off the fate his fellow victims of the tainted-blood scandal have met.

"I've had to watch my friends, who were in the same situation as me, die a death that could have been prevented," he said.

However, Kawada said he entered politics to make the best of the time he has left. Or, as the slogan emblazoned on his campaign posters say, to "Take action for change."

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