Kansai AIDS Activists Seek More Awareness, Care in ’92
By BRIAN COVERT REGIONAL CORRESPONDENT OSAKA — For Kyoichi Yashiki and other Kansai AIDS activists, 1992 will be an important year in boosting public awareness and seeking medical care for the rising number of victims in Japan. Yashiki, 33, is head of the Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture-based Japan Institute for People with HIV, a nonprofit organization that offers counseling and directs people with the human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], which causes acquired immunity deficiency syndrome, to the proper medical channels. With AIDS-related cases on the rise in Japan, the coming years will be a critical period for activists to educate the public about prevention in an effort to keep the problem from reaching crisis proportions, as in other countries, Yashiki said. “I think it is still possible to minimize the number of victims in Japan” through prevention, he said. “I consider the human rights of patients most important, regardless of the amount of infected people.” Yashiki said he was inspired in 1988 to start the Osaka organization — and later its affiliated Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka outlets — after visiting the U.S. and observing strong support and care for AIDS victims. About 250 members and supporters from various walks of life now make up the four Japan-based groups. Official statistics by the Health and Welfare Ministry place the number of nationwide HIV carriers in 1991 at 1,898 and the number of AIDS cases at 415 — figures Yashiki and other activists do not take seriously. The actual numbers may be several times those amounts, they say. In any case, the numbers show a sharp rise over estimated figures of recent years: for 1989, 1,104 HIV carriers and 103 AIDS cases; and for 1990, 1,164 HIV carriers and 182 AIDS cases. Yashiki said about 80 percent of the inquiries his group receives are from Japanese men, most of whom fear infection through sexual contact with prostitutes. Hemophiliacs are also a top concern of his group. An estimated 90 percent of all HIV carriers in Japan are hemophiliacs. Almost half of them have reportedly been infected with HIV-tainted blood imported from overseas. One such hemophiliac, Fumio Akase, 52, became the first HIV carrier in Japan to go public when he filed a ¥230 million lawsuit in 1989 against the national government and pharmaceutical companies, charging negligence after he was infected from a blood transfusion. Akase died last June from AIDS-related causes. But another hemophiliac infected by transfusion, Kyoto resident Yoshiaki Ishida, and dozens of anonymous victims like him are joining together to carry on the lawsuit in the Osaka District Court. The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 13. Akase’s lawyer, Tsuyoshi Matsumoto, holds the medical community partly responsible for public fear and ignorance of HIV victims. In Akase’s particular case, he said, a hospital initially refused to examine him but later compromised by dispatching a doctor to the dying man’s home. “There’s strong prejudice within the medical institutions,” Matsumoto said. “That is because they have insufficient knowledge about AIDS. They overly protect themselves, and they worry about losing other patients.” Doctors now treating AIDS patients in hospitals in the Kansai region generally avoid discussing the issue openly. One Osaka hospital employee confided that staff members may not always be notified of the presence of AIDS patients within their facilities. Fear of being ostracized in every aspect of their lives keeps many HIV victims in Japan from making their condition publicly known. “It is possible to fight the disease without coming out,” said attorney Matsumoto. “We can’t always expect people to do what Akase did, especially in the big cities.” “Disclosure brings both advantages and disadvantages,” says Yashiki. “Japan has a historical tradition of protecting personal privacy. Whether or not (HIV victims) disclose their conditions to friends is an individual decision.” Yashiki said last year’s announcement that U.S. basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson had acquired the AIDS virus throughout heterosexual contact, as well as the death of British rock star Freddie Mercury of AIDS-related causes, seemed to have had little effect on the problem in Japan. “Since Magic Johnson is not so popular among Japanese people, the impact was small,” Yashiki said. “And then there are the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.,” he added. “In an isolated country like Japan, that climate of self-assertiveness and direct protest hardly ever takes root. We have to have our own way of fighting.” Yashiki is hoping Japan can use its postwar economic clout to stem the rising tide of AIDS both at home and abroad by providing medical technology and scientific research wherever it is needed. “That is my dream,” he said. “I think (AIDS prevention) would be a great theme for Japan.” More information on regional AIDS activities can be obtained by calling Yashiki at (0720) 48-2044, the National Hemophilia Friends Group in Nagoya at (052) 791-4131 or the Osaka lawsuit support group at (06) 357-1657.