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Miyuki Yashiro, 89, has a wartime story to tell that only men are supposed to have: She served in the all-male Imperial Japanese Army during the Pacific War.

Yashiro, who has always been a woman at heart, was biologically a man for most of her life, until undergoing transgender surgery 11 years ago at age 78.

The military service was but one part of the difficult life Yashiro had endured as a woman with the appearance of a man. Music has given her the strength to stick it out, she says.

Before her stint in the army, Yashiro was a music school student, and after the war, she played in orchestras in and outside Japan and taught at a music college.

Yashiro was born in 1925 in Aomori Prefecture. Her mother died after delivering her, and her father passed away several years later, resulting in Yashiro being taken into the care of her mother’s older sister, who lived in Tokyo with her husband.

In those days, Yashiro’s first name was Hideo. Yashiro’s adopted parents were strict disciplinarians and had very demanding academic expectations.

Meanwhile, Yashiro was starting to feel there was something wrong with her life as a boy. She threw away boys’ toys and yearned for feminine things. “I was attracted by the beauty of girls’ kimono and hair ornaments,” she said.

However, that was an era when it was impossible for children to choose their own ways in defiance of their parents and other adults around them. Yashiro gradually grew skeptical about the world and became incredulous toward other people.

“I gave up trying to talk to other people about my gender dilemma, thinking ‘They will never understand,’ ” she said.

Music was the only consolation for Yashiro. She could forget her worries and problems while listening to pipe organ music at a nearby church. After graduating from high school, she joined Tokyo Music School, an elite institution that is now Tokyo University of the Arts, but “nobody offered congratulations,” Yashiro said. In wartime Japan, involvement with music was viewed as something unpatriotic.

While studying as a cello player, Yashir and other students were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. As music school students had “good ears,” some of them were groomed for the job of detecting the sound of submarines.

Yashiro was assigned to a regiment in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, that was responsible for observing weather conditions. Her job was transmitting weather information in encoded messages. She memorized signal tables by replacing cipher signals with musical notes in her mind.

But she was released from military service after less than a year because of health problems. Soon after she returned to Tokyo, Japan surrendered.

In September 1945, weeks after the end of the war, a group of players including Yashiro was practicing a piece of chamber music at a studio that remained standing in the midst of the rubble that had been Tokyo when a U.S. military police officer burst in. The MP wanted the group to perform dance music for U.S. Marines all night, and the players obliged.

After this incident, Yashiro’s life became steeped in music. In the 1950s and 1960s, Yashiro conducted an orchestra to perform live broadcasts on a regular weekly radio program on the Far Eastern Network, a station catering to U.S. service members based in East Asia.

“We played with no advance practice. I became too busy to think of anything else,” Yashiro said.

In her private life, Yashiro married a girl named Yasuko, a pianist who often worked in the same studio. Yashiro did not reveal her gender problem to Yasuko.

“I was absorbed in music, I fled into the world of music,” Yashiro said, “because I did not feel much gender difference there.” Later, she began to play in orchestras in Japan and other countries, including what was then West Germany.

Yashiro says she resents what she views as the vestiges of male chauvinism entrenched in the world of classical music.

“Nothing has changed compared with before and during the war,” she said.

When she was teaching at the women-only Kobe College’s school of music, Yashiro wrote this in a campus journal: “An orchestra must not be a sanctuary of men. Don’t bring the issue of gender difference into a creative field.”

In 1998, the first publicly sanctioned transgender surgery in Japan was conducted at Saitama Medical University, and awareness about gender identity problems has grown gradually since then.

Yashiro confessed her own problem to Yasuko. The confession was accepted with little fuss, Yashiro said, perhaps because Yasuko did not particularly care about gender differences in the world of music.

“It made no difference whether I was a man or a woman, because she (Yasuko) was also living in the world of music,” Yashiro said.

Accompanied by Yasuko, Yashiro went to Thailand for transgender surgery in 2004. After a new law enacted in the same year paved the way for people with gender identity disorder to change their legal gender status, Yashiro switched her status to female. To maintain their legal affinity after the gender switch without breaking the law, Yashiro divorced Yasuko and adopted her as a daughter. Yasuko is now 84.

Yashiro’s own self-awareness about her gender dilemma has disappeared, she said.

“The problem is — and this is true not only of gender issues — that people in this country are not sufficiently tolerant of someone different from themselves.”

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