Earlier this year when some Japanese train lines inaugurated women-only cars the Western media picked the story up as yet another example of Weird Japan, a place, they implied, where sexual deviancy was so culturally grounded that the only thing railway companies could do to protect female passengers from the wandering hands of salarymen was to segregate them.
Implicit in the coverage was the idea that such groping did not warrant the same sort of solution in the West, since it was assumed that women in other developed countries could take care of themselves under similar circumstances. I’ve often heard the same thing said by foreign residents of Japan who tend to think chikan (gropers) would disappear if Japanese women simply confronted them and fought back.
It isn’t that simple, but in order to understand why it isn’t that simple one must make a leap of imagination that is, in fact, culturally grounded.
On the Sept. 8 edition of its community action program, “Nanmon Kaiketsu (Solving Difficult Problems),” NHK addressed the issue of train groping as a set of social dynamics. Solutions, the show explained, can be found in altering these dynamics.
The most pertinent dynamic is over-crowding and the first solution the show presented to avoid chikan was simply to avoid trains during rush hour, and also to avoid express trains, which they say gropers favor because they provide longer ride times between stations and thus longer groping opportunities.
Among the women who came to the studio to talk about their experiences, one said that she had already quit her job because she couldn’t find a way to avoid crowded trains, but others rightly felt this was not a solution at all.
Another suggestion was to avoid taking the same car every day. A researcher explained that train molesters zero in on one victim based on behavioral criteria that they observe over time. It is easier to be observed if you always take the same car and, likewise, you are easier to locate.
As a preventive measure, changing cars every day may have merit, but in the end what these women really wanted was advice on how to make gropers stop groping and, secondly, assurances that the gropers would be punished. These women feel more than helpless when they are being touched in public. As one victim put it, “The passengers around me knew [I was being groped] but ignored it.”
In a survey of 630 Tokyo women, NHK found that 64 percent had been groped on trains but only 2 percent of these victims had reported it to police.
The prevailing reaction is something called “nakineiri (to cry yourself asleep”). These women feel that there is nothing they can do except suffer the humiliation. One woman described how a man came up to her on a train that wasn’t even crowded and rubbed against her continually for 10 minutes while she stood frozen in fear. Apparently, she thought he might turn violent if she moved away.
Another woman said that once when she was being groped she turned to the groper and asked him to stop, at which point he screamed angrily, “I’m not doing anything.” She felt the people around her tense up, trying to avert their attention away from her and the man. “I felt even more isolated,” she recalled.
Train groping happens in a very public place, which would seem to make it more difficult to carry out. But as experts pointed out, chikan understand how crowds think, and they count on this sort of group psychology.
The program showed seminars that are carried out in high schools, where police and others teach girls passive defense tactics. When you are touched, move away immediately, or cough loudly. In other words, let the chikan know you know what he’s doing without necessarily drawing the attention of other passengers. Most will stop. If you can’t move and he persists, actively remove his hand from your person. This sounds like common sense, but many women, it seems, do not have the presence of mind to do these things under the stress of the moment.
Another solution is publicity. While train gropers know that what they are doing is wrong, they don’t necessarily think it’s illegal. That’s why you now hear all those announcements on train platforms stating that “chikan is a crime.” It seems self-evident, but apparently it isn’t. In addition, police are reinforcing prosecutions of chikan by beefing up forensics. There’s a device that matches the microscopic fibers from the fingertips of a suspected groper with those found on the article of clothing that was groped.
But nothing is as effective as public sympathy. “You must have courage to ask for help,” the announcer said. So instead of confronting the molester directly, the victim announces she is being bothered and asks people to make room around her. If you are a passenger and notice that a woman is being groped, you do not confront the groper but ask the woman if she needs help. The idea is to isolate the chikan.
As a male tarento said, such actions are not “typical for Japanese people,” which returns the discussion to culture. The social dynamic at the root of the chikan problem is the one that exists between Japanese men and women.
As long as women fear men, it will be easy for men to take advantage of women and difficult for women to defend themselves against men on a one-to-one basis. Segregated cars sound like a cop-out, but as much as men may hate to admit it, they are probably the only real solution. A woman I know recently found herself in a women-only car by accident, having previously avoided them as a matter of principle. “At first it was strange,” she told me. “But after a few minutes I felt so comfortable.”