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Big in Japan: the country's first out transgendered elected official hopes to be a role model in a country where few dare to break the mold of tradition.

Aya Kamikawa's appearance reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Her serene posture and graceful movements project an air of ultrafemininity. In a society that reveres conformity, "Kamikawa casts an image of the prototypical Japanese woman.

Yet this spring the 35-year-old made headlines by becoming Japan's first openly transgendered elected official when voters in Tokyo's Setagaya ward chose her to represent them in the ward assembly. To the surprise of many--including herself--Kamikawa placed sixth out of the 72 vying for 52 available seats.

Her win was heralded as a landmark victory for sexual minorities in Japan, where there wasn't even a word for transgendered or transsexual until 1996. "Minorities--especially sexual minorities--have no representation," Kamikawa says. "I want to be a symbol. Now people will have a face to turn to."

She's off to a positive start. After her first two weeks in office, the Setagaya election committee removed the gender identification box in election documents and listed Kamikawa as a woman in its roster.

Her disarming candor about her gender identity--Kamikawa was born biologically male but has lived as a woman for the past 10 years--also has earned her politician-cum-celebrity status. "When I go to the park, people want my autograph or they want to take a picture with me," she says.

However, it remains to be seen if Kamikawa can become an effective voice over the long term. While she has proclaimed that all minorities in Japan should have equal rights, she has yet to nail down a concrete platform. But the office worker-turned-politician is the first to acknowledge that she has more gumption than experience.

"There's no preparing for it," Kamikawa tells The Advocate as she sits on the floor of her tatami-mat office. "When I decided to run, I didn't have any money. I didn't join any party because there was no party that matched my ideology. I wasn't even sure if I would get elected. I just really wanted people to listen to me and hear what I had to say. It wasn't about winning; it was more about making a point."

Kamikawa finds herself among a growing group of Japanese public officials who buck the convention of button-down politics. This bloc includes comedians, former flight attendants, and--in the tradition of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura--pro wrestlers. One such politician, known as the "Great Sasuke," gained notoriety for refusing to take off his mask.

Takayoshi Miyagawa, president of Tokyo's Center for Political Public Relations, says this trend echoes a widespread disillusionment with the status quo. Despite their inexperience, Kamikawa and other new politicians could use their popularity to push for change in Japan, Miyagawa says.

For her part, "Kamikawa says she is ready to take more control. She is, after all, used to fighting uphill battles.

As a boy, she says, she always felt alienated from her body. Although she understood that she looked like her two brothers, at the age of 4 she told her mother that she wanted to be a girl. When her mother asked why, Kamikawa said, "So I can have a baby."

Her desire to live as a woman grew stronger throughout her teens and into her 20s, she says. While Kamikawa masqueraded as a guy who talked about sports, talk was all she could do. After friends coaxed her into joining a baseball game when she was 14, she mistakenly ran to third base rather than first when she hit the ball. "It was like being an access," she says. "I couldn't find any way to describe myself. I couldn't say I was gay, because the word didn't fit."

Then at 27, Kamikawa says, she was flipping through a magazine when she spotted an ad that asked, "Do you feel uncomfortable in your body?" Only then, she says, did she realize that "other people felt the same way I did."

Now Kamikawa hopes to help people like her realize they too are not alone. Some of her constituents, however, say they are still waiting for her to deliver the goods.

Sachiko Seino, a 32-year-old resident of Setagaya ward, says she found Kamikawa's political strategy some what flimsy. "If [being transgendered] is the only reason why she won, then I doubt she'll be able to stay on after her term is up."

Kamikawa's not flinching yet. "I expect some criticism," she says. "It would be strange if everyone started agreeing with me all of a sudden.

"Even if they don't agree with everything I say, Japanese people are changing," she adds. "They want a better, more inclusive society."

Krishnan is a Tokyo based freelance reporter.
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Title Annotation:World
Author:Krishnan, Sonia
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 2, 2003
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