‘When I was a child, I had a feeling I wasn’t satisfied with being a human being. To be a human being didn’t seem like a beautiful existence to me,” says Otojiro Toriyama.

“When I realized I was a human being, it was a strange feeling. I wished I were an animal, a bird, or dog, horse, serpentine. But no matter how much I thought about it, I knew I couldn’t leave my body and be an animal in this world. I was so disappointed.

“My body was a woman’s. But I thought men’s bodies were better because they’re more like animals, with muscles, hairier. Then I wished I could be a man. I was very small then, probably three or four,” he says.

Toriyama, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, shares something common to all transgender people; a feeling that he doesn’t belong in the body with which he was born.

When Toriyama was 33, he had his breasts removed and took hormones to deepen his voice and help him grow facial hair.

The 39-year-old artist grew up at a time when the word transgender was virtually unheard of in Japan, yet he was nevertheless able to find a way to live as a man.

Since Toriyama’s youth, great strides have been made in creating understanding and rights. However, transgenderism is still a concept that causes problems on many levels — reflective, perhaps, of its inherent dichotomous nature.

Up to 70,000 transgender people are estimated to live in Japan, according to various Web sites and blogs, which are often used as a valuable tool in networking transgender support groups.

For example, a 50-year-old woman who goes by “K,” used a blog to drum up emotional and financial support over the past few months when she filed a lawsuit against a former employer in Osaka who she claims bullied and discriminated against her.

She wrote: “I was suddenly fired and have felt the harsh reality of nonregular workers.

“When I applied for the job, I told the employer that I was a GID (Gender Identity Disorder) person. But my new boss didn’t try to understand minorities and he only thought about how to exclude them. I was both implicitly and explicitly bullied in the workplace.

“Before me, there were many who could not find their voices. If my workplace keeps the current work atmosphere, I think the same thing would happen again. I won’t keep silent, crying alone. I won’t allow employers to use employees. I won’t allow discrimination against minority people.”

Koshi Yamazaki, a professor of law at Niigata Law School, says the government does not always properly deal with minorities who believe they have been wronged.

Yamazaki headed a proposal submitted Dec. 21 to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Junao Matoba in an attempt to create a nonprofit organization called the Citizen’s Association for Proposing on Legal and Other Systems on Human Rights, which he hopes will help raise the voices of those who are “forced to suffer and endure on their own.”

“(We want) to set up an independent national human rights institution,” says Yamazaki. “I’m sure the proposal will raise awareness about human rights violations and discriminations not sufficiently recognized as human rights of sexual minorities.”

Both the proposal and K’s case, which have been widely covered in Japanese media, exemplify an increasing recognition of transgender issues since it was first acknowledged in Japan about 10 years ago.

“In those days I met some transgender people at a gathering in Shinjuku 2-chome. That was the first time for me. Some of them wore dark sunglasses and masks, even though we were all transgender, and no one said their own names,” says Setagaya-ku Assembly member Aya Kamikawa, 38, who began her transition from male to female around the time medical experts in Japan started acknowledging Gender Identity Disorder.

Saitama Medical School submitted a report in 1996 about the “illness,” describing patients as those who feel “persistent discomfort with one’s assigned sex or the sense of inappropriateness in that gender role.”

Within a year, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology introduced sex reassignment surgery (SRS) as a treatment for people with GID. The university performed its first SRS in 1998. Most people start taking hormones a few years before the surgery as a step toward getting adjusted to the other sex.

“In the past 10 years, the concept of transgender has completely changed,” says Kamikawa. “It used to be a freak issue, but not any more. Now it’s a human rights issue.”

But with one solution seemingly solved, along came a new problem. While bodies could be changed to better represent one’s psyche, many documents told a different story.

“In my case, male gender was on all my documents so it was difficult for me to relocate to a new house or change my medical service or job,” says Kamikawa.

“I was a part-timer and nobody at my job knew my gender was male. I tried to change my gender on my ID cards, but the local government wouldn’t allow it. They said it was the first time they’d had this kind of situation. I went to the city to appeal it, but they denied it. No courts would accept it either. So I went to the Diet, but they would scarcely meet me.

” ‘Freak!’ most of them thought,” says Kamikawa. “So I ran for office.”

After being elected in April 2003 to the assembly of Setagaya, Tokyo’s most populous ward, Kamikawa pushed for reforms with the family registry, or “koseki.” In July 2003, the Diet unanimously voted to pass the bill, which went into effect one year later.

A person may change their gender on the koseki if they are above 20 years old; are presently single; have no child; have no testicles or have persistent lack of testicular function; and have genitalia with similar appearance to that of the opposite gender.

Kamikawa underwent SRS at the end of 2004 and changed her koseki in 2005. By 2006, 326 people had changed their sex on the koseki.

Though the law was a landmark in transgender rights, it too came with a new set of mental, societal and political concerns.

Prior to changing the koseki, one must get a sex change, which is by no means desired by all transgender people. And to get a sex change, a patient requires medical judgment and approval from two psychiatrists in order to be deemed “disordered.”

“But I don’t believe GID is a disorder,” says Yutaka Matsuda, a transgender clinical doctor. “It’s a trouble you face in daily life when you live honestly and naturally,” says Matsuda, who accepts GID patients at his Roppongi-based clinic.

“Possibly I am half man and half woman but in my conscious I’m more woman than man. This is a very important matter for those who want SRS.

“Before surgery a man may feel very troubled being a man. But after surgery she may have trouble because she is a woman and because, perhaps, she is not 100 percent woman. She still has some pieces of masculinity.

“Some transsexual people believe SRS is a magical key that will solve all of their problems. But that’s an illusion. Many people who undergo SRS develop mental problems.”

Some transgender people express similar concerns. Dr. Mia Nakamura, a sexologist and lecturer at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, had wanted a sex change when she was younger, but said she didn’t do it because “I didn’t have enough money or because I started feeling OK with my penis.”

Nakamura wrote a book called “Kokoro ni Seibetsu wa Aru no ka” (“Is There Gender Difference in Your Heart?”) and says parents sometimes approach her for advice about their transgender children who want SRS.

“Young people tend to think the change is very easy. Because we can change our body, or we can change our gender status with the koseki, young people think if they’re not the right gender they can just go and make those changes,” says Nakamura, 38. “I’m not sure if it’s really that easy mentally and I’m not sure if they really think everything through.”

She says that while she applauds advances in rights for transgender people in Japan, she’s also concerned about society’s reaction to transgenderism becoming mainstream.

“Even if you get surgery or hormones, and even if we change the laws and can change gender status, you really can’t change people’s minds. Society and people don’t change so often,” says Nakamura. “I have a big dilemma: On one hand, I want society to change to be gender-friendly. On the other hand, I don’t want people to think it’s easy to change their gender status.”

Nakamura gives speeches at high schools and says she’s often confronted with an ill-conceived view held by the public that all transgender people are those who have had to overcome a great struggle in their lives.

“Of course I try to achieve my needs, my desires. But people should know many aspects of transgender people,” she says.

“I hate it when people say I’m strong, or I’m very cool.”

But in Japan, what’s new or unheard of is often thought of as cool and quick to become trendy. In 2001 the protagonist of a popular TV series called “Kimpachi Sensei” was a transgender high-school student who was depicted as a hero who overcame his obstacle.

“Now some students with GID proudly announce it in front of all the students in their gymnasium though a microphone because the main character in Kimpachi Sensei did that,” says assembly member Kamikawa.

“Lots of transgender people have become more proud. We don’t have to hide any more. We have rights,” she says. “But in recent years, some transgender people are too proud.

For example in job interviews, some people immediately say: ‘I’m transgender.’ But if that’s the first dialogue with an employer, it’s odd. We have to appeal our skills instead.

“(In the case of K), it’s not only transgender people who have her problem of not getting rehired after a contract ends, it’s frequent for fixed-term employees,” says Kamikawa.

As the debate continues on how best to appeal to the rights of transgender people, most agree that trying to just be happy with who you are is the best policy.

“There are many things for us to enjoy in the world no matter which sex we have because we don’t have to think of our own sex all the time, do we,” says artist Toriyama.

“I was born like this and now I feel like I have special insight that I would have never had if I was a person who didn’t think about all means of changing sex. It doesn’t make me simply unhappy, but also helps me to create art works.”

Transgender ins and outs

Is transgenderism a new concept? Certainly not. “Two-spirit” Native North Americans were recorded from the early 1700s and women among the Tupinamba in Brazil lived as men (recorded from mid-1500s). In most African countries, transgender people were spiritual leaders. China’s cross-dressers were called “shih-niang”; Koreans had transgender figures called “mudang.” In Okinawa, meanwhile, ceremonies called “winagu nati” (becoming female) took place. Perhaps the most famous recorded case of all was Joan of Arc, who was executed in 1431 because she refused to wear women’s clothes and grow her hair long. When was the first sex reassignment surgery? The first full SRS was reported in Berlin in 1931. How much does a sex change usually cost? Male-to-female surgery, called vaginoplasty, can costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. Female-to-male surgery, called phalloplasty, tends to cost from $7,000 to $20,000. Are transgender and transsexual the same? Transgender describes those who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth and who combine or move between the two genders. Generally satisfied to live in the body they were born, they may change their name, wear the opposite gender’s style of clothing, and/or take hormones or do other “light” surgery. Transsexuals, on the other hand, are people who desire to have, or achieve, the physical sex of which they were not born. Where can I find out more? “Transgender Warriors” by Leslie Feinberg provides a well-written and in-depth exploration into the history of transgender across the world. “Gender Outlaw” by Date Bornstein offers a humorous and insightful look into the roles of gender identity.

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