Japan’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that a legal provision mandating sterilization surgery for individuals seeking a legal gender change is unconstitutional. Several international organizations, including the European Court of Human Rights, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and U.N. experts, had criticized the requirement as discriminatory and a violation of human rights.
While rights groups celebrated the groundbreaking decision, the judges’ choice to refer a separate clause, which necessitates that an individual’s genital organs resemble those of the opposite gender to legally change their gender, for further consideration by a lower court was met with disappointment.
The plaintiff, identified as a transgender woman under the age of 50, expressed surprise at the unexpected ruling but also conveyed disappointment that the decision on the other clause had been deferred.
Some lawmakers and women’s groups in Japan had argued that a ruling challenging the existing law would create confusion and undermine women’s rights. The Supreme Court had rejected a similar attempt to eliminate the sterilization requirement in 2019.
Human Rights Watch emphasized that the government must now take action following Wednesday’s ruling, urging the government to expeditiously remove the clause. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshi Moriya stated that the government would carefully examine the decision and respond appropriately.
Japanese law stipulates that individuals seeking a gender change must fulfill five criteria, including being at least 18 years old, unmarried, without underage children, having genital organs resembling those of the opposite gender, and having no reproductive glands or ones that have permanently lost their function.
The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that the last two requirements violated their client’s constitutional right to pursue happiness, live without discrimination, and imposed significant physical pain and financial burdens on transgender individuals.
While many countries have moved to repeal laws requiring surgery for a legal gender change, transgender rights remain a sensitive issue in socially conservative Japan.
A petition in favor of the surgery requirements collected over 20,000 signatures, and a group supporting the surgery requirement submitted a separate petition to the Supreme Court, claiming that eliminating the requirement would “significantly violate women’s rights and dignity.”
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Last month, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party issued a statement asserting that any ruling deeming the law unconstitutional would create confusion.