Groping: the proof is in the accusation

Current 'chikan' laws let no guilty (or innocent) man escape

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When a station attendant tapped his shoulder to lead him into a nearby police box shortly after he got off the last train of the day, Roberto (not his real name) thought the police just wanted to check if he had overstayed his visa.

Crowded trains are breeding grounds for gropers, but the crush of people also makes it easy to mistake the owner of the offending hand.

At the police box, officers and station staff began questioning him in serious tones. Roberto, an Italian national who had come to Japan from Rome just several months before with his Japanese wife and daughter, did not understand what they were saying. But having proper visa status, he proudly took out his passport to show one of the police officers, and waited for them to let him go home.

However, instead of saying, “Thank you for your cooperation. Have a nice day,” the officers took Roberto to a nearby police station and locked him up.

Still unable to understand what was happening, he spent the night in a cell. The following morning, a police detective explained through a Japanese-English interpreter that he was under arrest for molesting a woman on the train.

The charge took him completely by surprise. The train he had taken to western Tokyo that night was packed, as is always the case on Friday nights, with people returning to their suburban homes. Thinking back, he vaguely recalled that a girl standing next to him was grimacing. “Was she the one (who called the police)?” he asked. “But why me? I did nothing!”

The police told him he would be allowed to go home if he confessed to the alleged crime, and paid a fine of 50,000 yen. If he didn’t, he would have to go back to his cell.

His wife came to see him the next day. Having not heard from him all night, she had been absolutely frantic, and was on the verge of calling the police to help her find her husband when she received a call from them instead. No one had contacted her for 12 hours after her husband’s arrest.

“What should I do?” Roberto asked his wife in Italian. His biggest concern was the job he had just started a few weeks earlier, after months of job hunting, as a salesman at a Japanese company.

An officer in the room immediately told the couple they were not allowed to speak in any language other than Japanese. But it was their lack of knowledge about the Japanese judicial system that was the real conversation stopper.

“If you did it, tell them you did. If you didn’t do it, tell them that,” Roberto’s wife said to him, naively putting her faith in the ability of the Japanese justice system to get to the truth of the matter.

What they soon realized, however, was that the reality of their situation was much more complicated than that. Without any further investigation, Roberto’s case was sent to the public prosecutor’s office the next day. He was told that until the prosecutor decided whether to indict him or drop the case, he would have to remain in jail.

His wife engaged an English-speaking lawyer, but the situation changed little. On the fifth day of his arrest, Roberto yelled to his wife through the glass that separated them in the visiting room, “What an absurd country this is! I’m going to go home (to Italy) so get my suitcase ready!”

He was released a week after his arrest. The release, however, was not because the prosecutor confirmed his innocence but because Roberto made a false confession.

“I just made up a story to please the police,” he said. “It’s ironic that telling a lie was the fastest way to free myself.”

The one-week detention cost Roberto 50,000 yen in fines, 100,000 yen in lawyer’s fees and inestimable emotional and mental aguish.

Some may take his story as nothing more than the deniyals of a shameless offender. But if he did, in fact, do nothing, as he claims, the case is a devastating example of miscarriage of justice.

Roberto may take some small consolation, however, in the fact that he is not alone. Packed trains are now becoming a source of tragedy not only for victims of molestation, but also for those wrongly accused as perpetrators.

In Osaka, a 56-year-old staff member of a government-affiliated institution, who was arrested in May for fondling a 25-year-old female passenger in a Kintetsu Line train, filed a request to restore his honor with the Nara Bar Association later the same month. In Tokyo, a 53-year-old company employee is facing a court battle at the Tokyo High Court for groping a 23-year-old woman on a JR Sobu Line commuter train, even though he was acquitted of the offense at the Tokyo Summary Court in April.

It is not known how many of the 1,000-odd train molestation charges each year are contested by the accused. But in Tokyo alone, there were some 20 disputed cases last year, according to the People’s Aid and Relief Association of Japan, a human-rights group supporting alleged false molesters. Association spokesman Yasuji Fukazawa says the actual number of false charges is higher than the number of court cases since many of those falsely accused wind up signing confessions just to end the process.

“We receive a number of calls from false molesters who, even though they did nothing, confessed to the police for fear of losing their job,” Fukazawa said.

According to lawyers and supporters of alleged false molesters, the road leading to tragedy is the same for most innocent suspects. Typically, the process begins when a woman suddenly accuses the man in a packed train or grabs his arm or bag when disembarking. He is then led to the station office, but, still optimistic, tries to explain his innocence. The station attendants, however, perfunctorily separate the man from the alleged victim, calling the police just as if they are following a manual.

Without investigating the case on the scene, police officers lead the man to the police station. Unaware he has been formally arrested, he thinks his innocence will be proven when the police investigate further. But instead of listening to his claim, the officers high-handedly tell him to confess, saying “You know you did it. Admit it and you will be freed soon just by paying a fine.”

It is when he is suddenly handcuffed that he realizes how serious the situation is. The police never show him an arrest warrant nor explain to him that he has been arrested.

“Suspects are often unaware they have been arrested until the police handcuff them when they ask to go to the bathroom,” said Fukazawa. “They were supposed to have been caught red-handed by the victim, but police never tell them this and just ask them to come to the police station for a hearing.”

Suspected train molesters who admit to charges are usually released after filling out paperwork, and are later ordered to pay a fine for violating a local ordinance. But those who deny charges are held, indicted and subject to court proceedings.

Insisting on one’s innocence is not only humiliating but expensive as well. The 53-year-old Tokyo company employee, Takashi Okuda (not his real name), stayed in a cell for 28 days until he was released on 2 million yen bail several days after the indictment. The trial took two years, in which the defense team struggled to shake the credibility of the victim’s claim (the only evidence submitted by the prosecutor), doing everything from questioning a man standing next to the victim on the train to submitting data comparing the temperature and hardness of a hand and a genital. Winning acquittal at the summary court helped restore Okuda’s honor, but the bill amounted to more than 5 million yen. And the prosecutor’s appeal means he is now facing a another exhausting court battle.

Why are so many cases of alleged false molestation surfacing recently?

After Okuda’s acquittal, magazines and TV programs reported on female passengers who trap men by accusing them of molestation, in order to blackmail them before reporting them to police. But lawyers and supporters of alleged false molesters say most cases are not fraud, but simply caused by misidentification or misapprehension.

In fact, the Tokyo High Court acquitted a 41-year-old man early July by saying the victim did not see the assailant’s face and identified the man as the molester simply by elimination. In the Sobu Line case, the defense team suspects that the alleged victim mistook the man’s hand, which was accidentally jammed — when the train jerked, perhaps — between his lower body and her back, for his genital.

Female passengers have long endured suspicious sensations on packed trains without complaint. But as more women than ever are unhesitatingly and bravely reporting suspected offenders to police, it appears that some innocent men are being victimized in the process.

And the apparent change in policy on the part of criminal investigators puts falsely accused molesters through hell, lawyers say.

“Until about two years ago, alleged train molesters were freed within a few days if they firmly denied the allegation and no undeniable evidence other than the victim’s claim was found,” said Hiroshi Tajima, a lawyer on Okuda’s defense team. “Now if you want to insist on your innocence, you have to be prepared for some 20 days in detention.”

To be sure, it is important to respect victims’ allegations when it comes to offenses like sex crimes. Train molesters must be strictly punished, and there is no doubt that some determined molesters would stubbornly insist on their innocence if apprehended in order to escape justice. But the current system of law enforcement seems unnecessarily cruel toward those falsely accused, Tajima says.

“Though the former policy was unsatisfactory for the victims, at least suspects were detained for a night or two,” he said. “It seems the system was not altogether faulty.”

For now, considering the long period of possible confinement compared with the 50,000 yen fine, it is difficult to advise alleged false molesters to insist on their innocence, Tajima added.

Okuda now takes great pains to grab a seat, and when this strategy does not work he makes sure to stand facing the door. Roberto, who eventually decided to stay in Japan, always carefully arranges his body to avoid inadvertently touching female passengers.

“And I always raise my hands up in crowded trains so I don’t touch anybody,” he said, adding with a wry smile that he has now mastered the tactics for managing commuter hell.