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Opinion

Japan should make it easier for people to transition their gender

Current requirements are humiliating, expensive, painful and out of date

A lesbian couple hold Japan's first partnership certificate issued by Shibuya Ward in Tokyo on Nov. 5, 2015: local governments are taking the initiative to implement same-sex partnership systems.   © Getty Images

In August, there was a victory for a same-sex couple in Japan, when a foreign national was granted a long-term resident permit after living undocumented in the country for 26 years. The couple's lawyer said the Supreme Court had taken into consideration their 17-year romantic relationship.

For Japan's highest court to acknowledge that same-sex relationships merit the same legal protections as heterosexual ones was an unambiguous and uncomplicated example of compassionate justice.

One problem: the couple in question is actually heterosexual.

Only the Japanese citizen is a man; his partner is a transgender woman -- someone who is assigned male at birth but comes to identify and live as a woman -- from Southeast Asia. The couple's erroneous classification reveals the lack of understanding and the specific challenges faced by trans individuals in Japan, while invalidating the woman's experience and identity.

In recent years the Japanese public's support of the LGBTQIA+ community -- which includes queer, intersex and asexual people -- has grown. Advertising giant Dentsu's survey earlier this year showed that nearly 80% of Japanese people in their twenties to fifties are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Local governments are taking the initiative to implement same-sex partnership systems, with at least 25 municipalities and 1 prefecture having done it as of October 2019. That prefecture is Ibaraki, where the warm community in Itako City is already inviting same-sex couples to participate in the "bridal element" of its annual Suigo Itako Iris Festival.

Japanese society is showing that the LGBTQIA+ community should be afforded the opportunities enjoyed by others.

Participants march during the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade in Tokyo: the Japanese public's support of the LGBTQIA+ community has grown.

However, while these are exciting improvements, the conversation's focus has remained on same-sex relationships. This has led to other aspects of the LGBTQIA+ community being left behind, creating gaps and barriers.

In the residency case, the woman originally entered Japan in 1981 using an entertainer visa and overstayed, unable to return to her country due to the harsh treatment of trans individuals there.

Yet she remains legally classified as a man despite living in Japan as a woman for several decades, presumably because she does not fit into Japan's stringent requirements for being legally recognized as a woman.

Requirements under the current system include a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, or GID. This diagnosis is no longer recognized internationally, having been removed from the World Health Organization's and U.S.'s manuals that classify illnesses. The most severe requirement of a legal transition in Japan, following a diagnosis of GID, is medical sterilization.

There are also complex rules that might make transition impossible. For example, people undergoing medical transition in Japan must be over 20 years old, unmarried and not have children under 20 years of age.

The requirement to be unmarried is particularly striking and has created a problem where a legally married couple cannot have their marriage recognized after one partner transitions because they would now be a same-sex couple -- for whom legal marriage does not yet exist in Japan.

In order to better protect its citizens and other residents, and to prevent such legalistic problems, Japan should ease the barriers to recognition of trans people's identities.

The international community is watching. A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch highlighted the human rights violations faced by trans individuals under the current system in Japan. The following steps would allow trans people more dignity and fewer hardships.

First, the requirements to be legally recognized as another gender should be loosened. Japanese leaders should carefully consider if factors such as marital status and the age of children ought to make medical transition impossible. A person who is a good spouse and parent will surely continue to fulfill those roles well, regardless of the gender marker on their identification.

A person's public gender presentation should also be taken into consideration, in order to protect their dignity. The woman at the center of the recent legal case faces embarrassment every time she is asked to show her residence card, which claims that she is a man.

This type of daily embarrassment can be very harmful and cause people to avoid situations that might require showing identification documents, such as staying in a hotel or even reporting crimes to the police.

Most importantly, the medical requirements for legally changing gender identification should be changed. Under current law, sex-reassignment surgery and sterilization are required procedures.

The requirement for these surgeries can mentally harm people by sending the message that trans individuals are disliked by society to such an extreme that they should be prevented from having children.

These painful surgeries also present practical and financial difficulties. Many people may not wish to have some or all of the surgeries involved in a full medical transition, or they may lack the money, time and support at home or at work to do so.

This couple's victory should be celebrated. It is a step forward in the long arc of justice and equality in a country that consistently chooses compassion over complacency.

However, there is more work to be done in supporting and recognizing trans individuals to ensure the constitution's guarantee that "all of the people shall be respected as individuals" is a reality.

Nelson Ysabel is President of Stonewall Japan, an LGBT+ rights organization. Rebecca Ruth is National Vice Chair of the Association for Japan Exchange & Teaching. Panda and Rachel Boellstorff, Stonewall Japan volunteers, contributed to this piece.

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