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Japanese Trans Woman Wins Workplace Harassment Case

National Gender Recognition Law Needs Update to Prevent Future Harm

Panelists at a Tokyo symposium discussing legal issues for transgender people, September 22, 2017.  © 2017 KYDPL KYODO/AP Photo

The government in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture has awarded a transgender woman workplace compensation after recognizing her depression was the result of harassment she faced from her supervisor. Despite her requests, the woman’s supervisor repeatedly refused to refer to her with female pronouns, which resulted in her taking leave from work and seeking mental health services.

Japan has not ratified the International Labor Organization’s convention dealing with workplace discrimination, but its national labor laws prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This case is a significant victory for reinforcing transgender peoples’ limited legal protections in Japan, but it also highlights the legal system’s barriers for trans people. Though the trans woman in this case explained to her boss that she identified as a woman, because of the extreme hurdles created by Japanese laws, she was still legally recognized as male, which her boss used to insist he could still address her as a man.

In Japan, trans people who want to legally change their gender must appeal to a family court. Under the Gender Identity Disorder (GID) Special Cases Act, applicants must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be surgically sterilized. They also must be single and without children younger than 20.

In 2017, during its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Japan pledged to revise the law. But despite mounting domestic and international pressure, the government has failed to do so. In 2019, Japan’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the law did not violate Japan’s constitution.

Even the name of Japan’s law reflects the need to reform it: referring to “gender identity disorders” is out of sync with international medical standards. The World Health Organization removed “gender identity disorders” from its International Classification of Diseases in 2019. UN experts and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have both urged Japan to eliminate the law’s discriminatory elements and treat trans people, as well as their families, the same as other citizens.

Trans people recently gathered at the Diet, Japan’s national legislature, to hold the first-ever roundtable discussion on gender identity issues. Members of parliament from all political parties at the table recognized the need to revise the GID Special Cases Act. 

As the Kanagawa case illustrates, this reform cannot come quickly enough.

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