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Will Japan's Government Follow Universities' Lead on Trans Rights?

 Participants march during the Tokyo Rainbow Parade, April 2015. © 2015 Reuters/Thomas Peter

When I was a sophomore in 2014 at Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, our college president announced that transgender women would be able to join our student body. I and the other students who had assembled to hear the president speak met this announcement with applause. Finally, our college would open its doors to all women who wanted to learn.

Around the world, education institutions are leading the way on trans rights and inclusion – and Japan is no different. But now, the government needs to update its laws. The spotlight is currently on Japan due to its hosting of the upcoming Olympics, and activists are urging Japan to implement a federal LGBT+ non-discrimination law.

Over the past few years, LGBT+ rights have gained political momentum in Japan, but laws continue to lag behind. Four major universities have already announced they will allow trans women to attend as women based on a self-declaration model. There aren’t specific campus policies for trans men, but Human Rights Watch research found they were in a similar predicament. An 18-year-old trans man university student in Okinawa said: “I’m happy like this [without surgery]. But I think I might have to do more operations and fully transition before applying for a job.”

That’s because even students who are able to matriculate on an equal footing face a discriminatory legal environment. Japan’s law still mandates a mental health diagnosis and sterilization surgery for legal recognition of trans people.

On other LGBT+ issues, Japan has made strides.

In 2015, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) issued a directive describing accommodations schools should make regarding transgender and other sexual minority students. Its guidebook for teachers about LGBT+ students signaled an evolving view on their rights.

Then, in 2017, Japan updated its national bullying prevention policy to protect sexual and gender minority students. Soon after, in 2018, Tokyo’s municipal government passed a bill that prohibited discrimination against LGBT+ people.

Now Japan’s universities are leading the way on trans inclusion in higher education. Four women’s universities in Japan (Ochanomizu and the women’s universities of Nara, Miyagi Gakuin, and Japan) have announced that they will begin to allow trans women to matriculate.

But these students are not fully protected, as under the Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Special Cases Act, transgender people in Japan must undergo medical intervention and surgical sterilization for the government to legally recognize their gender.

This protocol harms trans people who cannot or do not want to undergo irreversible medical procedures such as sterilization. Because the law mandates that the procedures can only be undertaken once a person is legally an adult – currently 20 in Japan – it also means that teenagers entering a university are completely barred from having their gender identity officially recognized.

This means they could attend a university that respects their gender identity, then graduate and enter a legal system that mandates they undergo surgery.

Japan’s legal recognition procedure is outdated. Its very name, suggesting that gender identity is a “disorder,” is scientifically obsolete.

The World Health Organization removed the diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” from its diagnostic manual in 2019. Furthermore, sterilization requirements for legal gender recognition, such as in Japan, have been condemned repeatedly by human rights and medical organizations.

In 2019, two Supreme Court justices highlighted the need to reform Japan’s law, even while the court upheld it.

Until the GID Act is reformed, Japan’s education ministry should lead the way by acknowledging the self-declared gender of all individuals at its public universities.

By adopting a policy that respects the right to education for trans individuals, individual universities in Japan, and around the world – including my alma mater – are acknowledging that trans women should have the same opportunities to pursue higher education as everyone else.

Just as when I was a student, universities across Japan will benefit from being inclusive of trans students. I know my classmates and I appreciated that our college not only offered us classes on gender and human rights, but also implemented policies like this one that showed us what it meant to live in a diverse society.

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