Japan’s Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision on Tuesday, ruling against a government agency that had barred a transgender employee from using the women’s bathroom, according to public broadcaster NHK.
The decision was the top court’s first ruling involving the rights of sexual minorities in the workplace, NHK reported.
The plaintiff is an employee in her 50s, working at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). She was assigned a male gender at birth but started living as a woman from around 2008, except in the workplace, according to NHK.
In 2009, she told her supervisor that she wanted to identify as a woman at work and requested permission to use the women’s bathroom, NHK reported. The employee’s request was granted, but only for a bathroom two floors away.
The employee then filed a request to improve the situation to the National Personnel Authority (NPA), a Japanese administrative agency that protects the rights of civil servants, but was rejected.
In 2015, the plaintiff filed a suit against the government at the Tokyo District Court, arguing that it was discriminatory to be banned from using certain bathrooms, NHK reported.
Three years later, the Tokyo District Court ruled that METI’s decision was illegal and ordered the government to pay damages of 1.3 million yen ($9,200).
After the Tokyo High Court overturned that decision in 2021, the plaintiff took her case to the Supreme Court, where she argued in a hearing in June that being banned from using certain bathrooms was illegal and harmed her dignity, NHK added.
In an email to CNN on Tuesday, METI said it was aware that there was a Supreme Court ruling Tuesday regarding the use of women’s bathrooms by a transgender METI employee.
The ministry will “take further action in consultation with the relevant ministries and agencies after carefully examining the Supreme Court’s ruling,” it said in the statement, adding that it will “continue to make every effort to respect the diversity of its employees.”
Much of Japan has long held conservative views toward LGBTQ issues – and while polls in recent years have suggested attitudes are shifting, activists say discrimination is still rife. For instance, Japan is the only Group of Seven (G7) nation with no legal protection for same-sex unions.
And under Japan’s Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act, enacted 20 years ago, transgender individuals must undergo invasive surgeries – including sterilization – to be legally recognized according to their gender identity.
In order to have their identity documents amended, they also have to be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder,” which was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of diagnostics in 2012. And they have to be over the age of 20, unmarried and not have children under the age of 20.
Requiring sterilization has been widely denounced by LGBT groups in Japan and around the world, and the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights has previously called on all states “to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to individuals belonging to marginalized groups.”
In 2019, Japan’s Supreme Court upheld this law after it was challenged by a transgender man.