Japan Transgender

Japan flag. Japan Transgender

I Want to Be Myself: Perspectives on Japan's Transgender Community.

by Justin Ellis

In the early years of this decade the transgender community in Japan underwent a media makeover that widened social understanding of what transgender means. Mainstream attitudes, however, still largely follow traditional gender lines and are clearly maintained in recent legislation dealing with "gender identity disorder." However, the message from Japan's transgender community remains "I want to be myself."


The innocuous cover of the DVD 3-Nen B-Gumi Kinpachi Sensei ("Mr Kinpachi of 3rd Year Class B") belies how this long-running television drama destigmatized perceptions of transgender people in Japan. Since 1979, the program has been a catalyst in breaking down prejudices about social issues ranging from teenage pregnancy to homosexuality.

In the show, the 30 junior high school students of class 3B navigate the uncharted waters of adolescence with their empathetic teacher and mentor, Mr. Kinpachi. In 2001, audiences were introduced to Nao Tsurumoto, a new student joining the well-established school and its stable of familiar actors.

Tsurumoto is different from the start, her floor-length skirt generating sneers of 'hen' "weird" in Japanese from some students. In one scene she dons a suit and grabs at a faux crotch she has made for herself; another reveals that she has self-mutilated her breasts. When she is found fighting with a boy in a school hallway, the overbearing headmaster bellows at her: "Boys should behave like boys and girls should behave like girls!" She belligerently yells back in defiance, "I don't want you to decide how I should behave as a girl. And I don't know what it's like to be a boy. Why do you have to divide people into black or white? There is gray as well."

Transgendered in high places

Prominent Tokyo assemblywoman Aya Kamikawa remembers how Kinpachi Sensei helped to explain to Japanese audiences the archetypal anguish of seidoitsu-seishogai (gender identity disorder). "Before the series appeared, people believed that being transgendered was just an arbitrary choice the person made," says Kamikawa, a male-to-female transsexual. "But they learnt from the program that it wasn't a voluntary thing to want to change sex. Transgender people in Japan changed from being freaks to a topic of human rights."

Shortly after the program went to air, in February 2002, professional speedboat racer and female-to-male transsexual Hiromasa Ando came out. In June of that year the Tokyo district court ruled that dismissal on the grounds of cross-dressing was discriminatory, and in February 2003 Kamikawa ran for public office and was elected in May. "All of these events became a media circus," says Kamikawa.

Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Law

The drafting of the Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Law in July 20031 brought the transgender community under further media scrutiny, and controversy erupted when the law was enacted in July 2004.

The introduction of the GID legislation meant that many transgender people in Japan could finally change their gender status in their family registers. By the end of 2005 about 330 people had done so.

But aside from the freedoms the GID has brought, it has also created division. Some see the label of 'disorder' as a wholly negative one, implying that there is something innately wrong with transgender people and echoing conservatives who clearly define gender as male or female and leave no room for 'gray.'

Kamikawa, however, is pragmatic about the legislation. "Yes, the GID has negative connotations but it is part of a process. To receive medical treatment in Japan we needed to be diagnosed, and now that we have gotten this far we can think about where we need to take it from here.

"Not a 'disorder'"

Masae Torai, one of the people whom the Nao Tsurumoto character was based on, and a veteran transgender activist, says, "I never felt that I had a disability. I felt that I was idiosyncratic. I had my operation in the USA, so I wasn't directly affected by the debate about what 'disorder' means. The main issue at the moment is that sexual reassignment surgery is still not covered under national insurance; that even if you don't want to have surgery you must to be able to legally change your gender; and that transgender people with children can't legally change their gender status even if they have had surgery."

Transgender and marriage

Lawmakers argue that if a mother or father changes gender, children of same-sex parents is the result. This in turn contravenes Article 24 of the Constitution2 that states: "Marriage should be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual co-operation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis."

A legal precedent underlines why other elements of the GID are so unequivocal. In the late 1960s, in the well-known "Blue Boy" case,3 a surgeon in Tokyo was charged with breaching the 1948 Eugenic Protection Act for having conducted sex-change operations on three men, and in so doing eliminating their ability to procreate. Both the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court ruled that the procedure contravened the Act. Some doctors and people within the transgender community believed that this ruling deemed the sex-change operation itself a crime; however, case reviews have pointed out that the judgment had more to do with the lack of an appropriate diagnosis and lack of informed consent. This case explains aspects of the GID like the prerequisite of having to be single to have surgery to reduce the possibility of coercion.

Gay and lesbian involvement

Inadvertently, denying transgender people with children the right to change their gender status has brought gay and lesbian activists into the debate over the GID. "We need to create new laws to represent GLBT (Gay/ Lesbian/ Bisexual/ Transgender) people because we would need a two-thirds majority of national seats and over 50 percent of the national vote to amend any article in the constitution," says Osaka Prefectural Assemblywoman Otsuji Kanako, Japan's first publicly out lesbian politician. "Basically there are no laws to protect the rights of GLBT people in Japan so the priority is to gain basic human rights for sexual minorities here." Otsuji's advocacy hit the mainstream in late 2005 when she was on the cover of Newsweek Japan.

The probationary period for the GID ends in July 2007 and Otsuji will submit a list of proposals to the Osaka Prefectural Assembly for inclusion in the current legislation. The proposals include the continued creation of forms that don't require gender specification, discouragement of discrimination in the workplace, use of the public health insurance system for gender reassignment surgery and more awareness about sexual minorities in public education.

In regard to same-sex marriage legislation Otsuji is more circumspect. "People can't even have different surnames when they marry in Japan, so something like a domestic partnership law, which I one day hope to see enacted, is a long way off. On a practical level, what we need to do is work with the minority parties to write a manifesto and get a GLBT person elected to national parliament."

There may be no consensus within the transgender community in Japan about the GID law but "people are far more politically aware, and more aware of their rights than they ever have been before," says Otsuji. Torai Masae would like to see a law like the British Gender Recognition Act4 passed in Japan. Under that law, it isn't necessary to have had surgery at the time of application or in the future to change one's gender status, but sufficient evidence must be shown that the applicant intends for their new gender to be permanent. There is also a provision in the act for the issuance of a new birth certificate, which allows transgender people to avoid unwanted scrutiny when having to produce documents with gender specifications.

Meanwhile, in Japan, a seven-year old biological boy in Kobe was recently admitted to school as a girl, which highlights how far the country has come in the understanding of what it means to be transgender.

However, the Gender Identity Disorder Law has divided the community into haves and have-nots with regard to who can legally change their gender status. This in turn has underscored the need for legislation that is inclusive of the diversity of people that are grouped under the transgender umbrella, rather than an exclusive law based on outdated pathological ideas.

While legal changes are being debated in the Diet it would seem prudent to engage television scriptwriters in charting the next phase of the transgender story in Japan, emulating the success that 3 Nen B Gumi Kinpachi Sensei has had in educating the general public about what it means to be in a gender minority in Japan.

First published in Kyoto Journal, Perspectives on Asia, issue 64, "Gender".

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