A perverse reality that periodically surfaces on the country’s crowded urban trains is the groper.
The problem, about which passengers get routine warnings from conductors, has been persistent to the point that railways have introduced female-only cars.
Usually male and preying on young females, gropers take advantage of the anonymity of a crowded train where body contact is unavoidable to molest their victims or sexually harass them verbally in low tones.
Victims are urged to alert railway personnel or police, and first and foremost, to be bold enough to loudly tell the tormentor to stop. Witnesses are also urged to come forward and report incidents.
Last year in Tokyo alone there were some 2,000 cases.
But compounding this sensitive problem is a relative lack of witnesses, resulting in a she-says, he-says situation in which the accused denies being a culprit. There have also been cases of people convicted by district courts of groping who are later acquitted by high courts that rule the charges were wrongful to begin with, after the suspect suffers substantial social shame.
Following are questions and answers about the “chikan hanzai” (groping crime) problem:
What constitutes groping?
For the Metropolitan Police Department, groping is a deliberate act of sexual harassment, generally physical, but occasionally verbal.
Cases the MPD has handled include fondling someone over their clothing, reaching into a stranger’s underwear, pressing one’s body into others from behind, unbuttoning clothing and attempting to take photos up a skirt.
Most municipalities have ordinances against groping. In Tokyo, indecent acts or harassment in public places can draw up to a six-month prison term or ¥500,000 fine. A repeat offender can be sent away for a year or fined up to ¥1 million.
More serious cases can be subject to national criminal laws, with violators getting prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years.
Under what circumstances does groping usually occur?
According to an MPD study last year, most attacks occurred on trains, primarily during morning rush hours.
Almost half of the victims were in their 20s and more than 30 percent were teenagers.
Last year saw police process 2,169 ordinance violations — the lowest number in the past four years. Police attributed the fall to the 2005 introduction of female-only train cars.
How can someone avoid being a victim?
The MPD says passengers need to be careful in packed trains.
They should also be aware of their surroundings, keep track of people who act in a suspicious manner on platforms, particularly those who do not board empty trains, appear to hunt a target or return to the same station after leaving on a train.
The MPD said some gropers target people who routinely ride a specific train, boarding at the same location on the platform. The MPD advises passengers to vary their patterns.
Also, gropers find it difficult to attack someone not traveling alone. The MPD thus urges potential victims to stick close to any acquaintances.
What should you do if you’re assaulted?
The MPD urges victims to express anger and tell the groper to stop.
People unsure about whether they have been victimized should relocate, such as moving to another car on the train, to see if their suspected tormentor follows.
The MPD advises people who are sure they are being victimized to try to grab the groper’s hand and confirm certain characteristics, such as sleeve, watch or ring.
The MPD urges victims to report cases to police or station staff, arguing that to meekly allow such “insults” to go unpunished or unreported only fuels further crimes.
Is it possible to be wrongfully charged?
There have been cases in which it was deemed the suspects were wrongly arrested and defendants were later acquitted in court.
In 2004, the Tokyo District Court found a man not guilty of groping a junior high school girl aboard a commuter train, based on the testimony of a woman who was riding in the same coach.
The woman testified that the accused was constantly moving his hands because he was trying to pull off his coat, which was stuck in the door of the train.
There have also been apparent frameups.
The Osaka District Court last October found a male university student guilty of framing a male company employee. The student, it was determined, had wrongfully reported to police that the man had groped his female accomplice on an Osaka subway train.
News reports said the accusers were seeking an out-of-court-settlement from their target by cooking up the groping case. The accused man had been arrested but was later released.
The Supreme Court in April acquitted a college professor of groping a high school girl on a train. The case marked the first time the top court overturned a guilty verdict in a molestation case.
Can innocent people be convicted?
Experts suggest judges tend to believe claims made by prosecutors. This is borne out by the nation’s 99.9 percent conviction rate.
In his book “Chikan Enzai no Kyofu — Utagawashikiha Yuzai Nanoka?” (“The Fear of False Groping Charges — Does the Dubious Case End in a Guilty Verdict?”), former Judge Kaoru Inoue says lower court judges are inclined to convict because they do not want their verdicts overturned on appeal, a situation that could damage their chances of promotion.
“Reaching guilty verdicts is safer” for lower court judges, Inoue says. “You may think judges are only trying to protect themselves. That is true.”
Inoue also says judges only trust the depositions of the alleged victims and disregard any argument by the defendants.
The corruption of courts can be seen not only in groping cases but in other criminal cases, he notes. “The stories of false groping charges symbolize the problems of the current criminal justice system,” Inoue writes.
What can one do if falsely accused?
In the book “Konohito Chikan to Iwaretara” (“If Someone Called You a Groper”), journalist Masao Awano advises the falsely accused to challenge their accuser on a station platform.
Awano warns that if the accuser manages to escort the accused to a station office, an arrest is certain to follow. Station masters and staff follow set procedures to merely turn an accused over to police and avoid discussion.
“You must not go to the station office even if you are urged by station staff to do so,” Awano says.
The best solution is to hand the accuser a name card or contact number.
Awano urges the accused to be compassionate toward an alleged victim and commiserate over her “bad experience.” But at the same time, he urges one to deny being a groper and, by offering a contact number, to give the assurance that leaving the scene is not tantamount to fleeing.