Japan: Family court rules it’s unconstitutional to require surgery for gender change

Close-up of a person walking while holding a transgender Pride flag behind their back

In a win for Japan’s LGBTQ+ community, a family court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to require a person to undergo surgery in order to officially change genders.

The ruling means that transgender and gender non-conforming Japanese citizens who wish to update their gender in official documentation should be able to do so without having surgery on their reproductive organs, and has been hailed as a landmark win by LGBTQ+ advocate groups.

The issue was brought to the Shizouka Family Court by transgender man Gen Suzuki, who filed a request in 2021 to change his gender to male on official documentation.

Suzuki, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria aged 40, had had hormone therapy treatment and a procedure to remove his breast tissue, but did not feel comfortable undergoing surgery on his genitalia.

Attendees take part in the Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade on May 6, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. The LGBT community and supporters marched down Shibuya and Harajuku areas on the final day of the Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2018 event to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
Japan has some way to go before transgender equality (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty)

Currently, Japanese law regarding people with gender dysphoria requires surgery to inhibit one’s reproductive abilities as a condition for changing one’s gender.

Suzuki argued that this requirement was inhuman and unconstitutional.

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The 2003 law also requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria by at least two doctors, for the individual to be aged 18 or older, and for the individual to be unmarried with no underage children.

On Thursday (12 October), Suzuki’s request was upheld, and the Shizuoka family court agreed that the requirement to undergo the surgery in order to update one’s gender raised “a question of its necessity and rationality” both from medical and social perspectives.

Commenting on the promising ruling, Suzuki said, per The Associated Press, “I want children to hang on to their hope. I want to see a society where sexual diversity is naturally accepted.”

This landmark ruling comes as Japan’s Supreme Court mulls over a similar case.

A person holds up a trans flag.
Japanese law regarding people with gender dysphoria requires surgery to inhibit one’s reproductive abilities as a condition for changing one’s gender. (Getty)

The plaintiff who brought the case to Japan’s Supreme Court, who has remained nameless to protect her privacy, says she lives “socially as a woman”, but is documented as a male in her family registry because she has not undergone surgery on her reproductive organs.

Her legal team has argued that the current law violates her right to pursue happiness and to live without being discriminated against, The Japan Times reports.

They also argued that the plaintiff has faced “significant disadvantages, difficulties and emotional distress” due to the “disparity between her socially lived gender and her legally recognized gender.”

A ruling on this case is expected before the year’s end.

To rule in favour of the plaintiff and update the surgery requirement would bring Japan up to date with the World Health Organisation, the UN Human Rights Office, and a number of other international bodies, who in 2014 called for the elimination of forced, coercive, and otherwise involuntary sterilisation.

Updating the law would also mark yet another win for Japan’s LGBTQ+ community who, this year, have come leaps and bounds closer to marriage equality.

Japan is currently the only G7 nation that does not recognise same-sex marriage.

But as of May 2023, two courts have ruled that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Currently, same-sex couples are only able to engage in civil unions – and even then, only in certain areas, such as Tokyo – with Japan’s constitution stating that marriage is between a man and woman.

However, according to a global Ipsos survey, at least 69 per cent of the Japanese population support legal recognition of same-sex marriage, with just six per cent opposing it.

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