When 67-year-old Mr Tanaka talks about his late daughter, he refers to her as a “jewel box.” After the girl’s death in an accident in 2000, she donated seven organs — her jewels — so that others might live. (By law, the daughter’s full name, age and other identifying information can’t be revealed.)
But this story is exceedingly rare in Japan, where just 76 people have donated organs since the law allowing them to came into effect in 1997. This is compared to the 82 organs transplanted per day in the U.S. Despite the technology being available, Japan remains one of the most difficult places to get a transplant — especially for children.
The Organ Transplant law requires not only prior written consent from the donor, but also the family’s permission after his or her death. What’s more, only those over age 15 even have the option to donate, making it impossible for young children in need of new organs to find suitable donors in Japan.
This situation forces desperate parents of sick kids to look to Europe or the U.S. for help. But the cost of an operation overseas can be well over 100 million. Many families travel to Western countries for treatment, but organ brokers and dubious transplants in countries like China are also on the rise.
The Japan Organ Transplant Network (JOTNW) reports there are about 12,000 patients currently waiting for kidney transplants around the country. With only around 200 transplants performed each year, just 1.6 percent of these people can expect to receive a new, potentially lifesaving organ. The wait for a kidney can be up to 15 years; for a new heart it could be two or three years. “Not everyone is still alive after this length of time,” points out Juntaro Ashikari, JOTNW’s chief transplant coordinator.
Established under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, JOTNW is committed to raising awareness of the issue and registering more donors. The group works with hospitals to help educate doctors on approaching bereaved families about donation. Other efforts include providing organ donor cards — available in English — that people can keep on their person.
But Ashikari notes that even when someone has a card in their wallet, they also need to inform family members of their intent. And while the Japanese-language cards can be picked up at ward offices and even some convenience stores, the English version is sent out only by request. Nevertheless, he’s hopeful of getting the word out. “Teachers could talk about organ donation in their classes, and companies could distribute cards to staff,” he says.
The lack of donors combined with a growing list of patients needing organs has led the government to consider new legislation. “There are three major proposals for changes to the law,” Ashikari says. “The major one is allowing donation in the case of brain death even if someone isn’t carrying a donor card, but with the family’s sanction. If this is approved, children under 15 will be able to donate.” Nothing has been decided but Ashikari remains optimistic that the change will occur this spring. Even if the law changes, we still need more donors.”
To get your donor card, email email@example.com with your name, address, phone number and the number of cards you require. See www.jotnw.or.jp/english for more information.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today