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To most people, Takafumi Fujio — with cropped hair, thick arms and deep voice — is a typical, middle-aged salaryman. But until four years ago, when the food company worker started on a range of hormonal treatments, he was a woman, a housewife and mother of two.

Fujio is one of an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people in Japan who believe they were born the wrong sex, a sexual minority that has been largely hidden from view.

But that is quickly changing.

Japan’s first sex-change operation was performed in 1998, and its first transsexual and gay politicians were elected to public office in 2003. A groundbreaking legal reform allowing some transsexuals to change their officially registered sex took effect the following year.

The advances — the result of long years of work behind the scenes — have given sexual minorities rising self-confidence and a greater willingness to come out of the closet despite the country’s long-prized conformity and disdain for displays of individuality.

“These changes have been way overdue,” Fujio said at a recent interview in Tokyo. “I think the law got people thinking, ‘If the country has recognized these people, they must be acceptable after all.’ “

Greater visibility and legal change are part of a general trend in Japan toward more personal freedom.

Technology and tradition have also played a role. The Internet has spread information about alternative lifestyles to people who in previous generations would have been isolated.

Meanwhile, the lack here of religious censure of sexual minorities has made the transition easier.

The rising visibility is a sharp turnaround for those like Fujio, who grew up in an era where talk of transsexual lifestyles was rare.

“The transsexual community had a great dilemma. If we spoke out, we risked our jobs, our livelihoods. But by staying silent, nothing would change,” said Aya Kamikawa, the nation’s first and only transsexual politician.

Since 2003, Kamikawa — a woman who used to be a man — has played a key role in lobbying for changes at both the national and local levels, including the sex-change law. She has also successfully lobbied to eliminate unnecessary mentions of gender in public documents.

Still, obstacles to full acceptance remain.

Under the 2004 law, for instance, only unmarried, childless applicants can change their official gender. Applicants also must have had a sex-change operation and been diagnosed by two doctors as having so-called gender-identity disorder.

A mere 151 people officially changed their sex between July 2004, when the law went into force, and the end of March 2005, according to the Justice Ministry. Fujio isn’t eligible to change his official sex because he has children.

The stigma of transsexuality is also still high in Japan. Transsexuals say they are reluctant to seek work or even go to the dentist for fear their original gender will be revealed by documents such as health insurance cards.

Transsexuals also experience even more restrictions because some of them are also gay or lesbian.

Same-sex marriages are forbidden in Japan, hospitals can block gays from visiting their partners and it’s difficult for homosexual couples to jointly purchase a home or for a survivor to inherit the assets of a gay partner.

“We have no legal protection or assurances whatsoever, and that brings many worries,” said Aki Nomiya, who was born male but now lives as a woman with a female partner, though she has not had a full sex-change operation.

Japan first needs to allow for a partnership system like that of France, whose 1999 Civil Solidarity Pact gives some legal rights to unmarried couples, Nomiya said.

But officials say Japan isn’t yet ready for such changes.

“This is a very complicated and divisive problem that needs to be treated with caution” said Kunio Koide, councilor of the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry. “I don’t see widespread support for reforms at the moment.”

Still, sexual minorities as a whole have claimed some victories.

Kanako Otsuji, Japan’s first openly gay politician, successfully lobbied for a change in local regulations to allow nonmarried couples to apply for public housing — including gays and transsexuals.

“My generation has been the first to speak out about sexual minority rights in any meaningful way,” Otsuji, 31, said in Osaka Prefecture, where she has held an assembly seat since 2003.

In the meantime, transsexuals are enjoying their increasing freedom — while chafing against the enduring restrictions.

As a young woman, Fujio said he suppressed his desire to live as a man and married a male coworker “mainly out of feelings of obligation,” giving birth to two girls.

Nine years later in 2002, Fujio made the decision to divorce and live as a man.

The move, however, has had painful consequences. His ex-husband’s family has allowed him to see his children only once since the divorce four years ago.

“Of course it’s tough. We have to first get the public to think, ‘It’s OK to live that way of life,’ ” he said. “Then, maybe I’ll get to see my kids — maybe in 10 years.”

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