Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Councilor in Tokyo fights for right to sex changes

AFP , TOKYO

Tall, slender, with long, black hair and softly spoken, there is nothing to suggest that Tokyo local councilor Aya Kamikawa is actually a man who has been on the waiting list for a sex-change operation for the last four years.

Diagnosed in 1998 as suffering from Gender Identity Disorder (GID), Kamikawa, 35, has chosen to fight to have the voice of minorities such as hers heard in a country where, she says with pointed understatement, "prejudice is not unusual."

It is perhaps surprising then that she has so far succeeded beyond her expectations.

"I wanted to stand for the local elections in my ward Setagaya to make my voice heard on GID and to represent the other minorities, who like myself have a hard time being accepted by society," she said.

In April, Kamikawa was the sole independent candidate elected as one of 52 local councilors, and now she busies herself with social and cultural issues affecting Setagaya's population of over 800,000 people.

This initial victory was followed by the passage through parliament in July of a new law allowing transsexuals to change their civil registration to reflect their new gender.

"This new law hasn't affected my day-to-day life, but it has given me renewed hope for the future," Kamikawa said.

"I am even hoping to marry my boyfriend," she said blushing and turning to the man with whom she shares her small traditional-style house, but who did not want to be identified.

About 20 people have undergone sex-change surgery in Japan since the first operation was conducted in 1998.

Prior to the new law, transsexuals who had completed surgical treatment faced embarrassment and prejudice because they could not alter their records -- needed to secure accommodation or a job -- to reflect their new gender and lead a normal life.

Kamikawa's battle to be accepted as a woman by society has cost her considerable personal suffering.

At first there was the sense of feeling alienated from -- and even hating -- her male body "which does not correspond to who I feel I really am."

Then there was the loneliness of five years working in a publishing company where she was obliged to act out the role of the typical Japanese "salaryman."

Unable to cope with the pressures imposed on the average company worker as well as her own identity disorder, Kamikawa became more and more introverted and drowned her sense of helplessness in alcohol.

Reaching the end of her tether in 1995, and suffering from a colon ulcer and other psychosomatic illnesses, Kamikawa resigned and "came-out."

At first her family and friends were shocked, but they supported her when she decided to stand for election, recognizing that "only I can know what is best for me," Kamikawa said.

The physical suffering followed, resulting from hormone treatment and the first surgical procedures, such as removal of the Adam's apple, an operation on her vocal chords to raise the pitch of her voice and hair removal by laser.

Today, four years on and despite the prior agreement of doctors, Kamikawa is still waiting for the green light from a medical board in neighboring Saitama prefecture to undergo the final surgery that will allow her to "become a woman physically."

"I want to be able to shower every day, and go to the toilet without suffering at the sight of my body. I dream of leading a normal life in which I can bathe in an onsen [hot-spring bath] together with my female friends," Kamikawa said.

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