Ryuhei Kawada filled the seats of the Portland State Native American Student and Community Center last Friday at 6 p.m., leading a talk about the truth behind Japan’s HIV blood scandal in the 1980s and other health and environmental issues.
Kawada, a member of the Japan Innovation Party in Japan’s House of Councillors, also serves on the committee of Health, Labor and Welfare.
“Representative Kawada is very interested in the areas of energy, environment and health,” said Center for Japanese Studies Director Ken Ruoff. “He is actually in a group of opposition diet members that are opposed to nuclear energy.”
Kawada is not only extremely informed in the political, environmental and healthcare field, but he also has a personal connection to it.
At 6 months old, Kawada was diagnosed with hemophilia. When he was 10 years old, he found he had contracted the HIV virus through contaminated blood products that were necessary to treat his hemophilia.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare bore responsibility because at the time they did not require that every blood sample be heated to the appropriate temperature, or be properly checked, before it was approved for use.
“Even though there were reports of HIV in the heated products, Japanese companies importing these products didn’t want to lose their market in American-heated formulations,” Kawada said. “And so together, with the Japanese government, the companies kept it a secret to continue selling these products. The American drug companies also knew about risks but still continued to expose the tainted product stock.”
Kawada wasn’t the only one infected with HIV from the contamination. Nearly 1,800 other hemophiliacs also contracted the HIV virus.
At this time, there were many false claims about HIV in Japan. People falsely believed that you could contract the virus simply by touching another person who had HIV. It was also thought that as soon as you became HIV positive, you would die. As a result, HIV patients were treated harshly and with extreme prejudice.
“The Japanese society treated HIV patients like criminals,” Kawada said. “I was terrified that the people around me would find out I was infected.”
Kawada said he felt hopeless in his society because of an incurable disease that was not his fault.
“I thought about taking my own life many times,” Kawada said.
However, one day Kawada met a very young boy with hemophilia who had also contracted HIV. The young boy stated his diagnosis confidently and without shame.
“I suddenly felt so embarrassed. I had been weak by hiding my disease,” Kawada said. “It was the Japanese government that caused my infection, so why should I live in fear? I should stop being afraid and live my life.”
This is when Kawada started getting involved in politics, trying to change the system from the inside. Kawada joined a group of similarly infected hemophiliacs who were trying to settle a lawsuit with the Japanese government for their afflictions.
“When I announced my identity and showed my face publicly, it had a big impact,” Kawada said.
After announcing his disease at 19 years old, his father strongly opposed. But with the support of his mother and many others who also decided to go public with their identity, Kawada brought the lawsuit to trial. However, several members of the group that initiated the lawsuit had passed away after their HIV infections had progressed to AIDS.
“My anger for the government grew,” Kawada said.
Kawada devoted his life to ensuring that a purposeful outbreak like this never happened again. To do this, he knew he had to bring awareness and education to others.
Finally, in February of 1996, the Japanese government did something rare: it apologized. HIV-infected patients were given compensation for their medical expenses.
“I received many letters from people all over the country [who were] moved by my story,” Kawada said. “They said, ‘I decided not to commit suicide, and you gave me the courage to keep on living.’”
Kawada was inspired by the responses he received and wanted to continue making a difference in people’s lives.
“It was the first time the government admitted wrongdoing. We achieved government history,” Kawada said. “But this wasn’t the end. I decided that if I were to keep on living I would work toward my dream of keeping a society that protects lives.”
That is exactly what Kawada does. He fights from inside government walls, uncovering the truth behind political healthcare scandals.
“There was no choice but for me to become part of the system and do the changing from the inside,” Kawada said. “That was the moment I decided to run for a government office. I was 31. I spend a lot of time on the ground meeting everyday people, especially patients.”
Kawada focuses on driving legislation that protects patients’ rights and prevents drug-related disasters. One way he achieves this is by ensuring pharmaceutical companies are separate from the government.
The listening audience was inspired by Kawada’s presentation and asked questions about academic funding, healthcare options and environmental pollution for another hour and a half after the talk. The majority of attendees were Portland State students.
“What most interested me was the issue of academic research and his notion of an unholy alliance between government agencies, bureaucracy, big business and funding for academic research, and how that has led to manipulated and doctored figures and secrecy of information regarding healthcare treatments, and the availability of those treatments to the Japanese public,” said graduate student Jeff Braytenbah.
Kawada ended the evening by reminding the audience that these issues are not just seen in Japan, but around the globe. Kawada urged everyone to stand up, speak out and make a difference.
“The trial I experienced told me something: that people can change a country,” Kawada said. “Everyday actions can change into major movements that produce social change, What I discuss today is not a problem linked to Japan but to all human life. My dream is to create a society that protects human life. This is my cause, and I am devoted to it.”
Kawada and his wife stayed for some time after the presentation to talk with attendees. Both Kawada and his wife made the trip from Japan for this talk.
“It is a very personal story, and we are very grateful to them for making the trip,” Ruoff said, “and for their willingness to present this.”