• Kyodo

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A Japanese court ruled Thursday that it was legal for the trade ministry to impose restrictions on a transgender official's use of women's restrooms, in a case in which the official was seeking to freely use the washroom of her choice.

Overturning a lower court decision that ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the Tokyo High Court said that limits on which restrooms the official can use could not be considered "unreasonable" as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry "sufficiently took into consideration" her concerns. The official was born male and has been living life as a woman.

However, the high court did order the government to pay damages of ¥110,000 ($1,000) to the official, citing a superior's remark that she should "return to being a man," upholding the lower court's recognition of the remark as illegal.

In handing down the ruling, presiding Judge Junichi Kitazawa said while the law protects the rights of people who want to live based on their gender identity, the ministry is responsible for creating a good working environment for all employees.

"Restrictions on the use of restrooms are a decision to fulfill that responsibility and it cannot be said that the ministry overstepped its discretion," Kitazawa said.

The official was medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria after she started work at the ministry. She began wearing women's clothes at work after explaining her gender identity to her colleagues in 2010.

But she was told to use the women's restrooms on a different floor away from her department because some colleagues were reluctant to use the same toilet booths, according to the ruling. Booths located in the upper and lower floors of her department were also barred.

The court noted that the ministry made adjustments in a situation that had no specific rules or precedents and the plaintiff had agreed to the restrictions. It said it did not see any changes that warrant a removal of the restrictions.

The plaintiff, who is in her 50s, plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

"It was a foregone conclusion. I am surprised that the court would hand down this kind of ruling now," the plaintiff said at a press conference after the ruling, using the Japanese idiom "overturning the table" to describe the reversal.

Her lawyer Toshimasa Yamashita said the ruling was "sloppy" and comes at a time when discussions on protecting the rights of sexual minorities are moving forward in the country.

Yamashita called for the "right decision" in the case, noting how the lower court had made a good decision in light of the plaintiff's situation and developments around the world.

The Tokyo District Court in December 2019 ruled it illegal for her workplace to limit her use of the women's toilets, saying "the right to live life based on one's gender identity is an important legal interest, and that placing constraints on that is unjustifiable."

The lower court ordered the government to pay a total of ¥1.32 million in damages.

It was the first court ruling in favor of a plaintiff suffering from workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity, according to her lawyers.

The ministry does not restrict toilet choice for those who have changed their gender on the census register. However, a prerequisite for such a change is undergoing sex change surgery, which the official did not undergo due to health reasons.

In 2013, the official asked the National Personnel Authority, which protects the interests of government officials, to resolve the situation but her request was rejected. She filed the lawsuit in 2015.

The trade ministry said it will scrutinize Thursday's ruling and respond after discussions with related government agencies.

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