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By Masae Torai

Gender Trouble

A recent legal victory has given hope to Japan’s transgender community. Now it’s time to scrap the family registry system

In Japan, each citizen is automatically enrolled in the family registry system. The registry lists all family members and is used by the government for various administrative purposes. (Korea and Taiwan are the only other countries that use this scheme, because Japan imposed it on them during its occupation.) Seeing as it forms the basis of all subsequent legal documents, the registry presents a real problem for some people.

The transgendered are among those with difficulties. That’s because all legal documents in Japan, except for drivers’ licenses, list the person’s sex. Transgendered people, who lead an existence opposite that of their birth sex, are treated as if their very lives were proof of their criminality.

Masae Torai is the founder of Female To Male Japan, a magazine for transgendered people

This burden, however, seemed to ease this summer when a law allowing citizens to change their gender went into effect. The transgendered can—for the first time—legally rent a house, work as a regular company employee, go to the doctor without hassle, and get married! (Transgenderism and homosexuality are separate issues; homosexuals can’t get married in Japan yet.)

I had female-to-male sex reassignment surgery (SRS) at Stanford University in California in 1989, and thanks to the new law, I legally became a male last September. Three times during the past ten years, I had appealed to the courts to change my gender on all my legal papers, and the third appeal was finally accepted. Do you know how happy I am? I wanted so badly to show the papers listing me as a legal male to my seriously ill mother before she died, and I was able to do it!

My first and second legal appeals occurred before the new law went into effect, so they were dismissed by the courts. The shameful excuse was, “We have no idea how to address this because there’s no legal precedent.” Even though SRS was first performed here in 1998, that medical “big bang” was powerless to move the legal world.

While my second appeal was under review, a friend of mine was stricken with cancer. He had had female-to-male SRS and looked very nice as a man, but he couldn’t bear to show the medical ID that proclaimed him a female. So he didn’t go see any doctors, and he died. This friend’s death caused us enormous anguish, and we decided to beg the government and the legislature to save us from such indignities. We formed a lobbying group and visited sympathetic Diet members, and at last they enacted the new law for us.

Unfortunately, we cannot say that the government led the way with their understanding of the issues. Rather, it was ordinary Japanese people who sympathized more deeply with our problems. This came about because of a few incidents that brought transgender issues into the public consciousness, like a popular TV drama that treated the matter very seriously and a transgendered person who became a ward assembly member in Tokyo. People then caught the feeling. In short, the conscience of citizens moved the government. I was really glad that Japan didn’t desert a minority.

But even though I wrote above that the “burden was eased,” not many transgendered people will be helped by the new law. In order to get approval to change their gender registration, candidates have to a undergo very thorough psychiatric evaluation. They also have to be older than 20, single, finished with their SRS, and childless. These are the hurdles we must clear to get the gender status that we want. In other words, the sun is still not shining on this minority of minorities.

An age limit, being single, having completed SRS—these restrictions also exist in some Western countries. But the “having no child” requirement we see only in Japan, never in countries that don’t have the family registry system. It’s easy to see why. Imagine that the registry shows a father, a mother and their kids as one family. If the father legally changes his gender, the paper shows that a woman is married to a woman and has kids. That cannot be permitted because the constitution of Japan forbids same-sex marriage.

On the day I became a legal male, my mother and I cried and literally danced with joy. Even then, though, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty towards the transgendered friends who have kids or married partners.
In the wording of the new law, there is this line: “For a three-year period following the enactment of this law, its enforcement and the social attitudes toward people with gender identity disorder will be constantly reviewed.” So we are planning to continue our movement, and we hope that the international community pressures Japan to give up their ridiculous family registry system.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.