GUILT SAID PRESUMED EVEN WITHOUT PROOF

Accused train gropers sometimes victims?

by Tomoko Otake

On the morning of April 13, 1999, freelance writer Naoki Ito was on a rush-hour train in Tokyo, heading home after working all night. Just after the train left Ikebukuro Station, a high school girl turned to him, grabbed him by the wrist and said, “Cut it out.”

An accusation from a girl on a packed train could only mean one thing — he was suspected of groping. But Ito claims he never touched her.

Another man, who didn’t see anything but heard the commotion, cut in and told Ito to own up to the wrongdoing, to which Ito replied, “I didn’t do anything.”

The three, locked in an awkward silence, got off at the next stop and railway police were summoned. They were then separated and questioned.

This was the start of a nightmare for the 35-year-old Ito, who was arrested, charged with molestation and eventually sentenced to 14 months in prison.

Ito remained behind bars during the police investigation and questioning, his trial and his appeals. He then served 10 months in prison. When he came out, many of his writing contracts had disappeared.

What infuriated Ito most was that there was no hard evidence or any witnesses to corroborate the girl’s claim. The judges found Ito guilty based solely on her testimony, which was deemed “specific and detailed,” he said.

According to some experts, Ito’s case illustrates what happens when judicial authorities — police, prosecutors and judges — get complacent.

Unlike murder or rape, the three pillars of justice treat groping as a stupid and trivial offense, almost the same way as they treat theft, said Nobuyoshi Araki, a professor of criminology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Guilt is assumed from the get-go.

Authorities don’t even check a suspect’s physical characteristics to determine whether the accused party could have committed the crime as charged, Araki said, and the courts tend to regard police interrogation reports as almighty and rarely question them.

Ito also believes investigators made things tougher for him because he kept maintaining his innocence. In fact, they tried every tack to coerce him into confessing, he said.

“The moment I entered a local police box, officers yelled at me, calling me a filthy groper,” Ito recalled. “Then later, they tried to appease me, saying, ‘I don’t hate you, I hate your crime. I know what it’s like, I’m a guy, too. You just had a lapse of judgment, right?’ “

Because Ito refused to admit the offense, the officers told him his arrest would be listed as “genkohan” (captured red-handed). By then, a good four hours had elapsed since the alleged incident took place.

According to Ito, the investigators also told him that had he just confessed to the crime, regardless of whether he was really guilty, he would have been charged with a less serious offense.

People accused of groping on trains are categorized into two groups, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Many are charged with violating prefectural ordinances that ban various acts of “harassment.” In Tokyo, the maximum penalty for this is six months in prison or a 500,000 yen in fine.

Ito was charged with a more severe offense, stipulated under the Criminal Code and punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Justifiably, society is becoming increasingly intolerant of molesters, especially those on trains. Many women who have endured these sickening and often humiliating experiences have also found the courage to speak out.

Railways, starting with Keio Electric Railway Co. in December 2000, have introduced female-only cars in an effort to curb the problem.

As awareness has risen, so has the number of groping arrests. While there are no specific groping statistics, National Police Agency figures show that police took action against 4,974 suspected violators of ordinances against harassment in 2000, a majority of whom are believed to have been gropers on trains. The figure marks a dramatic increase from the 1,083 in 1990.

But amid the crackdown, some people may have been wrongly accused, or even fallen prey to alleged gropings that never occurred.

Mitsuo Okita was going home one night in September 1999 on the JR Chuo Line when he became bothered by a girl talking loudly on her cellular phone. When he told her to stop using the phone, she became upset and yelled back, “Fine!”

Embarrassed, Okita moved away from the girl. After he got off the train and started walking home, he said, a cop stopped him and asked, “Didn’t you just grope someone on a train?” Okita was arrested on the spot.

He was never indicted, but his detention was extended each time he denied the charge. Okita filed a damages suit against the government in April, claiming his arrest and detention were illegal.

Ito and Okita founded a support group earlier this month with other men who feel they were wrongly accused of molesting people on trains.

The group’s 13 members come from all walks of life. Some have been charged with molestation but later acquitted. Others are still fighting to have their convictions reversed on appeal.

The group declared in a July 15 statement that it does not condone groping or any other form of molestation.

“We are aware that many women are seriously offended by despicable acts of groping,” the statement reads. “But on the other hand, innocent people like us are being mistaken as molesters, and arrested, detained and convicted.”

The group plans to send questions to judicial authorities and hold meetings to give moral support for members and their families. The group will also urge railways to find a way to make trains less crowded, so commuters won’t be bunched up together for long periods, leading to incidents of suspicious contact.

Ito doesn’t think real perverts would join his group in a bid to feign innocence.

“I don’t think real gropers would take the pains to join our group. It would be so much easier for them to pay a penalty and get on with their life.”