Japan’s Supreme Court made a historic ruling on Tuesday, overturning a government agency’s decision to prohibit a transgender employee from using the women’s bathroom.

This landmark decision marks the first time the country’s top court has addressed the rights of sexual minorities in the workplace, as reported by NHK, a public broadcaster in Japan.

The plaintiff, a woman in her 50s, works at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). Although assigned male at birth, she has been living as a woman since around 2008, except within her workplace. In 2009, she informed her supervisor about her gender identity and requested permission to use the women’s bathroom. While her request was granted, it was limited to a bathroom two floors away from her workplace, according to NHK.


Subsequently, the employee filed a request with the National Personnel Authority (NPA), an administrative agency responsible for safeguarding the rights of civil servants, seeking an improvement in her situation. Unfortunately, her request was rejected. In 2015, she filed a lawsuit against the government at the Tokyo District Court, arguing that the bathroom restriction constituted discrimination, as reported by NHK.

Three years later, the Tokyo District Court ruled that METI’s decision was unlawful and ordered the government to pay 1.3 million yen (NZD$ 14,800) in damages. However, in 2021, the Tokyo High Court overturned that ruling. Undeterred, the plaintiff pursued her case to the Supreme Court. During a hearing in June, she argued that being denied access to certain bathrooms was discriminatory and infringed upon her dignity, according to NHK.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, METI issued a statement expressing its awareness of the decision and its commitment to respecting the diversity of its employees. The ministry stated it would carefully examine the ruling and consult with relevant ministries and agencies to determine the appropriate action.

While Japan has traditionally held conservative views on LGBTQ+ issues, recent polls suggest a gradual shift in attitudes. Nevertheless, discrimination remains pervasive, and Japan remains the only G7 nation without legal protections for same-sex unions.

Furthermore, under Japan’s Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act, enacted two decades ago, transgender individuals must undergo invasive surgeries, including sterilization, to obtain legal recognition of their gender identity. They must also be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder,” a classification that was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of diagnoses in 2012. Additionally, individuals must be over the age of 20, unmarried, and not have children under the age of 20 to amend their identity documents.

The forced sterilization requirement has drawn strong criticism from LGBTQ+ groups in Japan and globally. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights has previously urged all nations to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to marginalized groups. In 2019, Japan’s Supreme Court upheld the law despite a legal challenge by a transgender man.