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Heisei Transformations: A new definition of parents, family ties overcoming hardship

Yuya Ota, left, and his wife Sato play with their adopted son in a park in Aichi Prefecture, on Dec. 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

Under the soft winter sunlight, a 2-year-old boy ran to his parents. "Hello dad," he called out, as 41-year-old Yuya Ota held out both arms and caught the boy. His wife Sato, 38, smiled as she watched, making for a perfect family scene.

But neither Yuya nor Sato heard the cries of their son when he was born. Yuya, a resident of Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, was born female, but his gender identity is male. Accepting his transgender identity, Yuya underwent reassignment surgery, and changed his sex to male in his family registry in March 2012. The next year, he married Sato. Unable to have children due to the surgery, Yuya consulted with his wife and they decided to adopt.

This type of family has only been recognized since Japan entered the Heisei era (1989-2019). In the previous Showa era, transgender individuals faced harsh treatment and resistance. In 1969, a physician who performed a sex reassignment surgery was even found guilty of violating the now-defunct eugenics protection law. The procedure came to be taboo, and the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology announced guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of transgender individuals as late as 1997, well into the Heisei era. It was not until 2004 that a special law went into effect allowing for people to change their sex in their family registry if they met certain conditions.

"I was always worried that I would have to marry as a woman," said Yuya. "But I became a man, met my partner and was able to have a marriage recognized by the law. My life began anew."

Before his transition, Yuya worked at a foster care facility. There he met children who had been abused and those from families struggling economically. Even though those children could not live with their biological parents, they were not necessarily unhappy; they still were able to smile innocently. Having met these children, Yuya knew that he wanted a family of his own one day. A special adoption system to allow a child not related by blood to their adoptive parent to be added to the family registry and thus be legally recognized as parent and child was introduced in 1988. In 2012, the Osaka Family Court recognized the adoption of a child by a transgender parent who had changed their sex in their family registry. There was nothing in his way -- Yuya was going to become a father.

Now, he, Sato and his son live with Sato's parents. In this new "Heisei model" family, who gets to bathe their son is the daily battle. "I also used to think that family was about blood connections," Yuya admitted. "But living with my son, he's so cute regardless. Family is really time spent together, isn't it?"

Ryo Maeda, right, is seen with with his wife Aki and their two children in Shiso, Hyogo Prefecture, on Nov. 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Soji Kawana)

Not only adoption, but methods of assisted reproductive technology (ART) have also opened new paths for people to become parents. "If we were a couple where the man was sterile, then I would have been recognized as the father. But that wasn't applied to me," explained 36-year-old Ryo Maeda (a pseudonym) in his apartment in Shiso, Hyogo Prefecture, in western Japan. His wife Aki (a pseudonym), 37, nodded along as their two sons, 9 and 6, clung playfully to their father's back.

Ryo changed his family registry sex from female to male in 2008 and married. His two children with Aki were conceived with donated sperm. There had long been no rules for the use of such a procedure, but the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1997 established guidelines that take into sufficient consideration "ethical and legal social foundations."

However, when Ryo went to turn in his first son's birth registration, a city hall official refused to take it, saying that Ryo was not the father. The local government did not allow Ryo, who was biologically unable to have children, to write his name in the space for the child's father on the document. Ryo withdrew the registration application, and his son became a child with no family registry -- a document necessary for numerous official transactions, including obtaining a passport, opening a bank account and registering for national health insurance.

The couple took their case to court, arguing that it was illegal not to recognize Ryo as the father of the child. They lost their first and second trials, but the decisions were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013. The opinion was divided 3-2, but Justice Itsuro Terada, who was later to become chief justice, emphasized in his opinion brief, "If we recognize a marriage in which a biologically related child cannot be born, we cannot exclude the possibility of a married couple having a legitimate child."

Former judge Masayuki Otsuka, who handled many family court cases, sees the background behind the recognition of a new kind of "family" this way: "The father-child relationship was acknowledged for the sake of the child," he said. "Children have the right to be raised healthily by their parents. Even if the child is not theirs by blood, if they have the will to raise the child, then it is not such an extraordinary thing to recognize their family relationship."

During the Heisei era, Japan has seen a lower birthrate paired with a growing number of unmarried people or those who choose to get married later in life, when they can no longer have children. Last December, the government announced the estimated number of births for the year: 921,000 children. It was the lowest number since records began in 1899. The number of newborns had fallen by half since the baby boom of the early 1970s, when the number exceeded 2 million annually. The average postwar total fertility rate of over 4 children per household had fallen to 2.05 by 1974, and has stayed under 2 since. The "shrinking population" became a keyword of the era.

"One cannot overlook the fact that the human rights of children began to be recognized in part because of the falling birthrate," another judge pointed out.

Ryo and Aki, who were finally recognized as the parents of their children, feel as though they have been able to construct a foundation for their family. Aki, who is dedicated to the day-to-day rearing of her two sons, said that she thinks the boys have come to resemble Ryo -- from their mannerisms, phrasing and even the position in which they sleep.

"Our neighbors tell us that they look exactly like their father," Aki remarked. A smiling Ryo responded, "Should we have a third?"

(Japanese original by Soji Kawana, City News Department)

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