Japan's rich buy organs from executed Chinese prisoners

Hundreds of well-off Japanese and other nationals are turning to China's burgeoning human organ transplant industry, paying tens of thousands of pounds for livers and kidneys, which in some cases have been harvested from executed prisoners and sold to hospitals.

When Kenichiro Hokamura's kidneys failed, he faced a choice: wait for a transplant or go online to check out rumours of organs for sale. As a native of Japan, where just 40 human organs for transplant have been donated since 1997, the businessman, 62, says it was no contest. "There are 100 people waiting in this prefecture alone. I would have died before getting a donor." Still, he was astonished by just how easy it was.

Ten days after contacting a Japanese broker in China two months ago, he was lying on an operating table in a Shanghai hospital receiving a new kidney. "It was so fast, I was scared," he says. The "e-donor" was an executed man; the price: 6.8m yen (about £33,000).

Beijing does not reveal how many people it executes, but analysts estimate as many as 8,000 people are killed each year. Reports of Chinese authorities removing organs from executed prisoners have been circulating since the mid-1980s, when the development of a drug called Cyclosoporine-A made transplants a newly viable option for patients.

Until now, most of the evidence linking executions to the organ trade has been anecdotal and has not been helped by a lack of transparency in the Chinese criminal justice system or the secrecy that surrounds prison executions.

A recovering Mr Hokamura claims he is concerned with where his new kidney came from. "My translator said my donor was a young executed prisoner," says the businessman. "The donor was able to provide a contribution to society so what's wrong with that?"

"It was cheap," adds Mr Hokamura, now back in Japan. "I can always earn more money."

Rumours of problems with follow-up care and patients dying within one to two years of returning from China have failed to stem the tide.

A single broker has helped more than a hundred Japanese people go to China for transplants since 2004 and the trade is growing. Official figures almost surely underestimate the numbers of people, many of whom fly without government knowledge. Mr Hokamura says his family is so pleased that his daughter has put his experience on the internet. In her blog she says she feels sorry for others to have to wait years for transplants and provides a link to a support centre in Shanghai. "Other people should know about this," she writes.

Sources say the cost of a kidney transplant runs to £37,000 and for a liver up to £88,000. Mr Hokamura paid another million yen for transport costs. There is little attempt to conceal the origins of the organs, the bulk of which are taken from executed prisoners.

Alarmed by the growing traffic, the Japanese health ministry has begun a joint research project with transport authorities in a bid to gain some control on the trade. But the government is likely to find it difficult to stop desperate people who have money from making the short plane hop to China. Says Mr Hokamura: "I was on dialysis for four years and four months. I was tired of waiting."

The Chinese government insists it is trying to crack down on the market in illegal organs. According to regulations, even in the case of a donation by a close living relative, both patients and donors must provide legal proof of the relationship by blood or marriage or submit to a DNA test.

But the signs spray-painted on the walls outside clinics and hospitals in many parts of China tell a different story. Simple and direct, these show a mobile phone number and the character for shen, which means "kidney", written alongside. Postings on numerous online bulletin boards and other internet sites also offer kidneys for sale.

The sale of organs for transplants is illegal in China, but the black market is flourishing. And it's not just the small private hospitals and clinics springing up all over the country - even bigger hospitals in the capital Beijing and the business hub of Shanghai have adverts in toilet cubicles and on the walls of wards.

"We have to wipe off the notices again and again. They even visit doctors, make numerous calls or write letters again and again," said Professor Ding Qiang, the head of Urology at Huashan hospital, part of Fudan university in Shanghai. "Donations that are subsequently made are surely organ trading, but 'organ donation' for money is strictly banned," said Professor Ding.

However, China is a huge country and, as the proverb goes: the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. The legal ban may have an impact on the illegal organ trade in major public hospitals but the private clinics and small hospitals, which are run for profit, are extremely difficult to regulate, leaving room for profitable, illegal organ trading.

Generally, there is a lack of awareness in China about transplants. As in Japan, a cultural taboo, strongly related to Buddhist beliefs, has traditionally been associated with donating organs. The procedure is seen to make the body imperfect and, in some ways, it means the donor is being unfilial, even if the donation is to a family member.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own