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Monday, August 30, 2004

Transsexual stands proud in a land of conformity

SMH.COM Article

May 3 2003

Courageous . . . Aya Kamikawa fought the campaign of her life to win a place on the Setagaya local assembly.

Aya Kamikawa's election to public office is a further sign that Japanese society is slowly opening its mind, Shane Green reports from Tokyo.
In her fight for the rights of transsexuals in Japan, Aya Kamikawa organised petitions and knocked on plenty of politicians' doors. It was a frustrating experience for Ms Kamikawa - who was born a male - in a country where conformity and uniformity are often regarded as virtues.
Then came some advice from a member of the Diet, Japan's parliament: unless she was prepared to step forward publicly and declare her identity, her voice would remain weak.
Ms Kamikawa considered the advice, and took it one step further. This week she became the first transsexual in Japan elected to public office, when she won a place on the local assembly for Setagaya, one of Tokyo's biggest local government areas.

With her victory, the 35-year-old wrote a small piece of history, but with big implications.

"Japan is a society where you can easily live a 'typical' lifestyle," she said. "But Japanese don't respect our real choice, our real personalities. As long as you are ordinary, you are safe in this society."

Not only does her victory demonstrate her courage, it may also be an indication that old Japan is changing, and becoming more inclusive.

Ms Kamikawa has had many experiences of the old ways, following a decision in her late 20s to make the transition to becoming a woman.

Still listed as a male on her family identity records, she found the basics of life such as renting a flat suddenly became extremely difficult.

Then there was work. After university she had worked in full-time jobs as a male - including as a public relations officer. But, as a woman, difficulties arose because prospective employers needed family identity documents. In the end, she could only find part-time work, where such documents are not required.

There was also the day-to-day prejudice she encountered. People would ask her what stage she was at with her "construction" - a reference to operations to change her sexual organs.

But Ms Kamikawa found welcome support from her parents, who also backed her when she told them she was planning to run for public office.

"To become a woman, to be my real self, that's my basis for living. "I can't live in a society that doesn't admit that. That's why I decided to run in the election."

The first hurdle was the election commission, which had to deal with the fact that her formal identity remains male. In a display of progressiveness the authorities decided she could stand as a woman.

Then there were the voters. Few people, even her supportive parents, doubted she could win. Initially, she found what she described as a "cold attitude". But as the campaign progressed, there were increasing signs voters were warming to her.

Now a four-year term awaits.

It is a great leap forward for Japan's transsexuals, who Ms Kamikawa estimates number in their high hundreds, perhaps a thousand.

But her election also carries a wider message. "As long as we keep silent, nothing is going to change," she said. "We need the courage to make a society which respects diversity."

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An old bit of news, I know. But I thought she was the first transsexual to become an MP, I was wrong. It was Georgina Beyer who was elected in 1999.

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