On Thursday, Japan’s Supreme Court unanimously upheld a controversial law that requires transgender people to undergo a sterilization procedure before they can apply to legally change their gender. The Supreme Court reasoned that even though the ruling implies a restriction on individual freedom, it is constitutional as the law is designed to prevent “abrupt changes” in society.
The Supreme Court’s decision has been met with criticism from the LGBTQ+ community and human rights groups. The Japanese transgender activist, Tomato Hatakeno, said in his tweet that the new law shows that Japan does not recognize reproductive health “as a basic human right.” Moreover, Human Rights Watch condemned the ruling as being “incompatible with international human rights standards…[the law] goes against the times, and deviates far from best global practices.” Suki Chung at Amnesty International described the ruling as “a missed opportunity to address the discrimination transgender people face.”
Law 111 first came into practice in Japan in 2004. Under its rubric, transgender people are required to meet a number of stipulations before they can be allowed to officially change their gender. NBC News reports that the rules require a transgender individual to be single, childless, and under the age of 20. What’s more, one has to be diagnosed with a “Gender Identity Disorder” by a psychiatrist. CNN states that the most controversial aspect is the law’s necessary condition for transgender applicants to “permanently lack functioning” reproductive parts.
The Japanese law has been subject to criticism for some time before Thursday’s ruling. In 2013, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights publicly called for all states “to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances.” In a 2017 report, Human Rights Watch particularly identified the 2004 ruling as “a stain on Japan’s record.”
The decision to uphold Law 111 came in the form of rejection to Takakito Usui’s appeal. Usui is a transgender man who was seeking to legally change his gender without undergoing the required sterilization procedure. Following the ruling, he cried while speaking to a press conference in Western Japan. His case represents the plight of Japan’s LGBTQ+ community that already faces a lot of discrimination. For instance, there is no recognition of same-sex marriages in Japan. What’s more, the conservative ruling party has made numerous prejudicial comments about LGBTQ+ people, including its statement that tax money should not be used to fund the rights of same-sex couples as they are not “productive.”
Friday’s ruling; however, seems out of step with recent developments in Japanese social attitudes. CNN states that a January 2019 poll done by the advertising firm, Dentsu, found that over 70% of its respondents support stronger legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, despite the fact that the ruling on Friday was a unanimous one, Usui’s lawyer, Tomoyasu Oyama, said that the judges’ reasoning was a sign that “doubts are undeniably emerging.” Usui spoke of his hope that these doubts were a signal of a possible “next step” in transgender rights in Japan.
The Japanese Justice Ministry has published statistics that show that more than 7,800 Japanese people have had their genders officially changed; these people have all have undergone forced sterilization. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights said that 22 of its countries still mandated sterilization as part of a legal gender change. For all of Usui’s hope, it remains that Thursday’s verdict in the Japanese Supreme Court is nonetheless part of a troubling global intransigence on transgender issues.