An unprecedented ruling by a Japanese court earlier this month has ignited hope within the transgender community that the national law mandating sterilization for official gender changes could be invalidated by the Supreme Court. Japan, as the only G7 nation without legal recognition of same-sex unions, has long enforced the requirement for individuals seeking official gender changes to undergo surgery to remove their birth-assigned sexual organs, a practice deemed “outdated and abusive” by Human Rights Watch.
On October 12, a family court rendered a verdict in favor of Gen Suzuki, a trans man who challenged the necessity of surgery to be officially recognized as male, declaring the requirement unconstitutional. Suzuki expressed, “Trans people like me now have a choice. We want to choose what happens to our bodies ourselves.” This landmark decision, the first of its kind in Japan, coincides with the Supreme Court’s deliberation of a similar case involving a trans woman, with a decision expected soon that could potentially overturn the surgical requirement.
Masataka Masaki, a trans man and representative of the activist group ESTO, remarked, “This ruling is significant as it reflects the growing awareness that requiring surgery is a human rights violation within our society. It could influence the Supreme Court, although the outcome will depend on the judges’ perspective.”
Invisibility and Changing Social Attitudes
While gay sex has been legally permissible in Japan since 1880, societal attitudes have often pushed many within the LGBTQ+ community to remain invisible. Even some bar owners in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ni-chome gay district have refrained from coming out to their families. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that awareness of trans individuals in Japan began to grow, with the medical recognition of Gender Identity Disorder (GID).
The 2003 GID Special Cases Act allowed legal gender changes, but only under specific conditions, including a GID diagnosis, unmarried status, and no minor children, in addition to surgery. However, in a 2019 case brought by a trans man, the Supreme Court upheld the requirement for surgery as constitutional. Nevertheless, the judges in that case raised human rights concerns, suggesting a possible need for change, which could be influenced by the recent ruling in favor of Suzuki.
Toward a More Inclusive Future
Recent developments indicate a shifting landscape in Japan. An opinion poll this year revealed a majority of Japanese citizens support same-sex marriage. A 2021 survey of local government officials showed that most had no objections to working with a transgender colleague, and a significant percentage was accepting of official gender changes without surgery.
Legally, progress has been mixed, with some recent court decisions highlighting challenges in recognizing the rights of transgender individuals and the LGBTQ+ community at large. However, the current Supreme Court case being heard by the Grand Bench of all 15 judges suggests the possibility of overturning previous rulings.
Despite the challenges and opposition, activists continue their fight for transgender rights. As the stakes remain high, especially for young transgender individuals facing disproportionately high rates of suicide, the hope is that Japan can create a more inclusive and accepting society, where no one feels the need to resort to such desperate measures.