Forced surgery, sterilization: Japan's trans community faces uphill battle

Despite the transgender community's current struggles, however, longtime advocate Fumino Sugiyama says there's reason to believe hope is on the horizon.
by Daniel Hurst /
Image: Fumino Sugiyama
Fumino Sugiyama, 36, outside his restaurant, Irodori, in Tokyo's Shibuya ward.Daniel Hurst

TOKYO — Fumino Sugiyama, 36, has been with his girlfriend for the past eight years, but he’s not allowed to marry her.

The Tokyo-based transgender man does not pass the very high bar Japanese law sets for people to have their change of gender legally recognized. The process includes the completion of gender reassignment surgery along with an operation to prevent the possibility of having children — a clause Human Rights Watch says amounts to forced sterilization.

Japan also does not allow same-sex marriage, so two people legally classified as female are not permitted to wed.

“For my partner, I want to get married, but because of the law I can’t go through the legal process of getting married,” Sugiyama told NBC News.

“I don’t want to have any other surgeries," he added. "I believe that if I am going to go under surgery I would want to do it for myself and not for anyone else. So I think it’s an absurd idea and law.”

Because he is classed as female on official documentation, Sugiyama also faces other difficulties in everyday life. He has been turned away from job interviews and struggled to get health insurance. He has had to explain his personal circumstances to customs officers and elected officials who question why he has a beard.

“Politicians don’t know the struggle that a trans person has to go through every day,” said Sugiyama, who has been personally lobbying lawmakers for reform. He added, however, that once he has spoken to politicians face-to-face, “they recognize it is an issue, and a lot of them do offer help and try to support me in creating a movement.”

Human Rights Watch, an international human rights advocacy organization, is calling on politicians to reform the law surrounding gender identity so Japan can join the ranks of LGBTQ-friendly countries by the time it hosts the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“I don’t want to have any other surgeries ... I believe that if I am going to go under surgery I would want to do it for myself and not for anyone else. So I think it’s an absurd idea and law.”

Japan’s controversial Law 111 requires people who seek a legal change of gender to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, have body parts that “resemble the genital organs of those of the opposite gender" and have no functioning reproductive glands.

“The forced sterilization clause is equivalent, in my view, to torture,” Kanae Doi, the Japan director of Human Rights Watch, told NBC News.

“Because of this forced sterilization clause, there are a lot of people who cannot change their legal gender into their own identity," Doi said. "But also there are some people who sterilized themselves against their will. There is a lot of pressure.”

People who wish to apply for a legal gender change through Japan's family court must also be at least 20 years old, unmarried and without any children who are minors.

“You have to be single, which means that if you are married you have to divorce,” Doi said. “This is also a violation of privacy and identity and all sorts of things in which the government should not intervene. This law is obviously outdated and it should be revised as soon as possible.”

While Japan has seen an improvement in social acceptance of LGBTQ people, advocates say there is still a need for concrete legal steps, including laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Same-sex marriage is seen as a particularly complicated issue, because the Japanese constitution refers to marriage as a partnership of “both sexes” — indicating constitutional reform might be needed to achieve marriage equality.

“I view the next three years as being the biggest moment for the LGBTQ community because of the 2020 Olympics.”

A cross-party group of parliamentarians dedicated to pursuing LGBTQ issues was established a few years ago, but it is struggling to gain traction. Doi said this relatively new caucus has been “working on reform,” but it hasn't been able to move the needle much because there are “some very influential and senior” conservative parliamentarians "who are blocking these movements."

Sugiyama said he is doing his best to raise awareness of the issues. He knows from personal experience the challenges LGBTQ individuals face in Japan.

He recalled an occasion when he was just two or three years old and was required to wear a skirt to a ceremony at his kindergarten. He refused. Throughout his schooling, he said nobody spoke about trans issues.

“When I was in high school, I first came out to my friend because I felt so isolated and alone, and it just became too much for me, and I wanted to just speak out loud,” Sugiyama recalled.

“My friend was very accepting and said, ‘You’re Fumino, you’re just who you are, you’re the same, it doesn’t matter what gender you are or what you identify as.’ I feel that was a very good experience, a positive experience for me, and if it had been a negative experience it probably wouldn’t have led me to where I am now.”

Sugiyama's parents also accepted him. He went on to write a book about his experiences, titled “Double Happiness” and published in 2006, partly to raise the visibility of his community among the rest of the population.

After the book was published, many people contacted Sugiyama asking to meet him. He suggested they join him at a suburban litter-pick-up volunteer group. Ken Hasebe, a local assembly member who would go on to become the mayor of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, saw the numbers involved and came to realize the need for action. With Hasebe’s support, Shibuya became in 2015 the first local authority in Japan to issue partnership certificates for same-sex relationships. Since then a handful of other local governments across Japan have followed suit.

“People in Japan had the general idea that there weren’t any LGBTQ people living in Japan, and then when Shibuya ward started to pass out these certificates of recognition for same-sex partnership, people were like ‘Oh, there are people among us who are part of the LGBTQ community,’ and that’s when things started to move towards the right direction,” Sugiyama explained.

Image: Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade 2017
Colorful costumes and signs seen during the parade at the sixth annual Tokyo Rainbow Pride event, on May 7, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan.Damon Coulter / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The growing visibility of the LGBTQ community has played out in other ways, too. Sugiyama is co-chair of Tokyo Rainbow Pride, which is likely to record its biggest-ever numbers when the country’s largest pride parade and festival is held again this upcoming weekend. Not many people showed up to the first parade in 1994, but last year nearly 110,000 people attended the main weekend of activities.

Sugiyama has also fielded an increase in requests for him to speak to groups about LGBTQ issues. Last year he conducted 120 lectures or seminars for companies, schools, government officials and parents across the country, he said.

He is convinced education is the key to changing attitudes, having heard that message from activists in Taiwan, where the top court last year paved the way for same-sex marriage to take effect within two years.

“I view the next three years as being the biggest moment for the LGBTQ community because of the 2020 Olympics,” Sugiyama said. “I feel like diversity is becoming a term that a lot of people are becoming aware of, and during this hype with everyone acknowledging the term, it could be one of the biggest movements to occur for the LGBTQ community in Tokyo and Japan in general.”

And if the effort culminates in legal reforms, Sugiyama hopes he will finally have the chance to marry his long-term partner.

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