July 13, 2023
TOKYO – The Supreme Court’s Tuesday ruling against the government in a lawsuit filed by a trans government employee who was restricted from using certain restrooms has raised hope that it will inspire the employers of sexual minorities to take steps to accommodate them.
The ruling was the first judicial decision by the top court on what the work environment should be like for sexual minorities. In its supplemental opinion, the court said it hopes that society as a whole will discuss the issue and reach a consensus in the future.
After the ruling, the employee said in a press conference that the ruling reflected the “significantly positive” opinion of the court. “I’m satisfied,” the employee said. “The parties involved will not be able to ignore the weight of the ruling.”
The plaintiff is an employee of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. She is male according to the official family register but felt uncomfortable being treated as a man from an early age. After joining the ministry, the plaintiff was diagnosed with gender identity disorder.
When the employee began working in women’s attire in 2010 with the consent of the ministry, she said she felt more relaxed and comfortable in her job. However, the employee was asked by the ministry to use a restroom more than two floors away from her office.
The employee, who is in her 50s, felt the restriction was unfair. “I just wanted to be treated like any other woman,” she said.
The ruling on Tuesday confirmed that the government had lost the lawsuit over restrictions on the use of restrooms, forcing the government to review its relevant policy.
Lawyer Toshimasa Yamashita, who represented the plaintiff, praised the court decision at the press conference. The court “sent out an important message to society,” Yamashita said.
For sexual minorities, restroom usage is a serious issue. There are believed to be cases in which people feel emotional distress over not being able to use a restroom for the gender they self-identify with. They could also suffer health problems related to their excretory system if they refrain from using restrooms.
An expert in gender issues said that restrooms are essential facilities both at work and at school. “Ensuring the dignity of the individual in restrooms will lead to the creation of a society in which each individual can realize his or her potential,” Associate Prof. Takeyoshi Iwamoto of Kanazawa University said.
But it is difficult to say that companies are making progress in this area.
According to a survey conducted by the online job site Indeed from April to May this year, of the 2,108 companies covered, 510 or 24% said they have special arrangements for sexual minority employees. Of these, 281 companies were sampled, and only 62 or 22% of them said that they “take steps related to their use of restrooms and locker rooms.”
The lack of relevant national guidelines for workplace environments for sexual minorities is believed to be a factor behind the survey results, and the Supreme Court ruling may serve as a reference for such efforts.
The court’s decision on Tuesday took into account individual, specific circumstances, such as the fact that the plaintiff was diagnosed by a doctor as unlikely to be sexually violent and explained this to other employees.
The ruling is a decision on an individual case and cannot be generalized.
In his supplemental opinion, presiding Justice Yukihiko Imasaki said that in a case when the understanding of other employees is not obtained, “it cannot be said that there is a consensus in society to unconditionally accept such free use of restrooms.”
“At this point, there is no other way but to listen carefully to the requests of the concerned parties and the opinions of other staff members to find the best solution,” Imasaki stated. “This type of problem cannot be resolved without the understanding of many people, and it is desirable that society as a whole discuss and reach a consensus on the issue.”