Takakito Usui is a transgender. Born as a girl, he identifies himself as a man. Following his request to be legally recognized as a man, Japan’s Supreme Court decided that the condition for obtaining this right is for him to be sterilized, in other words to remove his ovaries and uterus. Many human rights organizations have denounced this decision, arguing that the ability for transgenders to determine their sex is an issue of self-determination rather than a physical or psychological disorder that would require medical support.
This situation is not an isolated case. Many Asian countries consider that sexual physical characteristics need to correspond with the gender they identify with. As a result, these countries consider medical intervention as a precondition for transgender to change their gender identity. In contrast, since 2017, the European Court of Human Rights has banned this precondition in the European Union, enabling transgender people to determine their identity regardless of their physical characteristics.
In a country like Japan, where strong gender stereotype persists, the Supreme Court justified its decision by the fact that social cohesion prevails over individual rights and that bringing brutal changes in the society would have jeopardized this cohesion. While this decision is much criticized, it is also worth noting that Japan is also experiencing at the same time positive changes on social issues and is moving toward a more inclusive society, in particular regarding LGBTQ.
Japan says transgender people must be sterilized
Should transgender people be sterilized before they are recognized? Earlier this year Japan’s Supreme Court decided that the answer is yes. Takakito Usui, a transgender man (ie, someone who was born female but identifies as male), had sued over a requirement that, to be officially designated a man, he has to have his ovaries and uterus removed (as well as have surgery to make his genitals look male, be over 20, single, have no minor children and have been diagnosed as suffering from “gender-identity disorder”). He argued that all this violated his right to self-determination and was therefore unconstitutional. The court disagreed.
Human-rights groups say demanding irreversible surgery is outrageous. Although several Asian countries, including South Korea, have similar laws, Western countries that once also used to require sterilization, such as Norway, France and Sweden, no longer do. In 2017 the European Court of Human Rights called for the change in all 47 countries under its jurisdiction. Sweden has started to compensate transgender people who underwent mandatory sterilization.
Critics of Japan’s laws also reject the notion that transgender people are suffering from a psychological disorder. “The movement here has not been viewed as about rights but more about helping sick people overcome their illness,” says Junko Mitsuhashi, a professor and campaigner who studies the history of transgender issues. She is also a transgender woman who has not gained legal recognition for her gender, having been unwilling to undergo massively invasive surgery.
Japanese courts often seem more concerned with maintaining social harmony than defending individual rights. In its ruling, the court said that the law was intended to avoid “confusion” and “abrupt change” to society. Yukari Ishii, a researcher at Toyo University in Tokyo, says that whereas in America and Europe long campaigns for gay rights paved the way for transgender people to call for more equitable treatment, Japan is further behind. Japanese society is patriarchal and retains strong gender stereotypes, she says.
Change is coming, however. The court in Mr Usui’s case did acknowledge that the law may need to evolve as society does. Polls suggest that Japan is becoming more liberal on many social issues. Over 70% of respondents to a survey in January said they were in favor of stronger legal protections for gay or transgender people. Almost no Japanese ground their objections to such rights in religion, as people often do in other countries.
In recent years a handful of Japanese towns and cities have introduced partnership certificates for same-sex couples. Some have gender-neutral bathrooms. A small number of firms are trying to be more welcoming to transgender people, as well as offering benefits to same-sex partners. Ms Mitsuhashi says she has had no problems at her university (in contrast, when she first came out as transgender, one of her employers at the time fired her). Nonetheless, Japan needs to be much readier to accept diversity in general, says Ms Ishii. The country can be donkan—“thick-headed”—about where the world is going, says Ms Mitsuhashi.
Source: The Economists, No Bylines, Mar.14, 2019. Photo credit to Kyodo News / AP .