Ayako Fuchigami wins a seat on the Hokkaido assembly, becoming Japan's first openly transgender prefectural assembly member. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

SAPPORO--Ayako Fuchigami, wearing a pink jacket in front of a campaign vehicle with a sign in the same color, gave a simple message to the crowd that had gathered near an intersection here.

“We just want to live a normal life,” Fuchigami, 44, said in the microphone as rainbow flags waved in the background. “I want to create a society where opinions from diverse people are reflected.”

Her words resonated with enough people that she became Japan’s first openly transgender person elected to a prefectural assembly on April 7.

During the campaign for the Hokkaido assembly, some criticized Fuchigami as being a flashy crowd-pleaser who might not be serious about policy.

Fuchigami dismissed such criticism.

“I am representing minority people who face many difficulties every day. I feel the weight of their burden on my shoulders,” Fuchigami said after winning a Hokkaido assembly seat from Sapporo’s Higashi Ward district.

Throughout the campaign, Fuchigami, endorsed by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, talked about the realities facing transgender people in Japan and her own experiences.

“We appear to be universally recognized, but it is only true in the realm of bars and TV programs,” she said in a speech on the last day of the campaign.

Fuchigami was born a boy and given a typical male name, Daisuke.

In kindergarten, Fuchigami started feeling strange about her gender.

She recalled an incident at kindergarten when she was asked to write about her future dreams.

“I wrote that I want to be a mother, and then I was told to fix the ‘mother’ part and changed it to ‘father,’” she said.

Out of fear of being bullied in junior high school and high school, Fuchigami spent her youth covering up who she really was.

After completing graduate school at Hokkaido University, she landed a job at a research institute affiliated with the university.

There, Fuchigami felt she could no longer endure her appearance, which was becoming more masculine day by day.

She decided to receive feminizing hormone therapy and “came out” to people close to her.

“I felt so much better, and I could enjoy the process of feminization,” Fuchigami recalled.

Invited by an acquaintance, Fuchigami started working as a dancer at LaLaToo, a club featuring “newhalf” (transgender and transvestite talents) in Susukino, a bustling entertainment and nightlife district in Sapporo.

She had a sex-change operation, and changed her gender and name on her family register, from Daisuke to Ayako.

She was then hit by another reality: life after retirement.

Fuchigami saw her senior colleagues struggling in life and being rejected by society after they retired from performing at the club. One even committed suicide.

“I want to create a better world for minorities,” Fuchigami said she thought at the time.

When she was pondering her own second life, Fuchigami decided to enter politics.

In Sapporo’s Higashi Ward, six candidates, including Fuchigami, vied for four seats.

During the grueling campaign, Fuchigami would not let the criticism slow her down.

“This is a battle to give a fresh air of diversity in the prefectural assembly,” Fuchigami repeated at her rallies.

The Sapporo city government introduced a partnership declaration system for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people and other sexual minorities in 2017.

Fuchigami told voters that she wanted to expand the system to cover all of Japan’s northernmost main island.

In the final days of the campaign, other sexual minorities showed up to support Fuchigami by waving rainbow flags, a symbol of LGBT pride.

On election day, Fuchigami received 18,372 votes, placing her third in the four-seat district.

In the wee hours of April 8, she learned that her victory was assured.

Fuchigami threw her arms in the air in celebration and joined her supporters in giving three rousing cheers of “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”

According to an LGBT group consisting of local assembly members who are sexual minorities, Fuchigami is the first openly transgender person to serve on a prefectural assembly.