Takako Tonooka’s life at high school did not start out the way she had anticipated. On the very first day she attended class, she was groped on the train — and that was only the beginning of her nightmare. For a year and a half, she was the victim of persistent groping attacks during her commute to and from school.

On almost every train journey, Tonooka, who agreed to the interview on the condition of anonymity in order to protect her privacy, encountered a groper on the train, usually on her way home from school because she would ride the all-women carriages that operate during the morning rush hour. The gropers were different on each occasion and would include passengers who looked like they were still in their teens to salarymen and even elderly men.

Too shocked to utter a sound during the attacks, Tonooka’s cries for help remained unheard for a long time.

“No one believed that I was being groped every day. I didn’t know what to do,” says Tonooka, 18. “When you are in that situation, you freeze and find it impossible to utter a word. All I could do was cry myself to sleep every night.”

Tonooka and her mother, Mari (also a pseudonym), tried to come up with various ways to avoid being assaulted. They sought advice from various experts — including the police, who advised her to change where she stands on the train or use different train lines — but nothing worked. At home, Tonooka rehearsed trying to speak out against those who tried to take advantage of her. She also practised various self-defense moves she hoped might help catch them.

Eventually, Tonooka began to fight back. However, she found that catching an offender on a crowded train was a lot harder than she had thought. The vast majority got away and some even yelled at her, as if to intimidate her.

“What those men did to my daughter is unforgivable,” Tonooka’s mother says. “It’s absurd that even though my daughter was the victim, we were the ones having to come up with ways to avoid being assaulted. I’m just proud of the fact that she refused to give in and continued going to school.”

Groping on trains has been an issue for decades, but it was only in the mid-1990s that authorities finally began to take it seriously, publicly stating that “groping is a crime.” This slogan, which is common nowadays, made its debut on posters hung inside train carriages and at stations.

Groping (chikan in Japanese) is punishable under the Anti-Nuisance Ordinance issued separately in all 47 prefectures nationwide and Article 176 of the Penal Code. While male offenders engaged in groping often touch female victims over their clothing, some go further, for example, reaching inside womens’ underwear, forcing women to touch their body parts, cutting their skirts and masturbating in public.

There is a significant difference in the degree of punishment meted out by the ordinance and the law. Under the ordinance, offenders who touch a woman over her clothing are typically sentenced to either six months or less in prison or receive a fine of ¥500,000. Penal Code offences, however, carry sentences of six months to 10 years in prison for more serious crimes.

According to the 2015 White Paper on Crime, 3,439 arrests on allegations of groping were made under the ordinance in 2014. By comparison, 283 groping cases were filed in violation of the Penal Code.

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police Department data shows that an estimated 1,900 groping cases violated the Tokyo ordinance in 2015, of which 72.2 percent occurred either inside a train or at a railway station. Of the 800 sex crimes violating Article 176 in 2015, 14 percent occurred inside trains.

The number of groping cases that have been reported, however, are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg, says Riichi Oto, deputy leader of the Saitama Railway Police, who encourages victims to come forward. According to a 2010 online survey conducted by a panel of lawyers, railway companies and professors set up by the National Police Agency, 304 out of the 2,221 female respondents had been victims of groping in the past year. Of the 304 victims, 89.1 percent did not report the incident.

“Many people think it’s pointless to report groping cases, so they don’t file a complaint,” Oto says. “However, most likely the gropers are committing these crimes every day, and so catching one person could prevent many others from also being assaulted. Such crimes often escalate if left alone.”

Given the nature of the crime, which typically takes place in packed trains during rush hour, both police officers and legal experts agree that investigating a groping allegation isn’t easy. Once an alleged offender is apprehended by either the victim or the authorities, both sides are usually taken to a nearby police station, where investigators spend hours questioning them.

However, the onus of proof typically falls on the victim and their testimony.

To avoid false accusations, Oto says police officers are trained to collect as much objective evidence as possible, including witness statements, DNA residue and verification that the accounts are backed up by a re-enactment of the crime to ensure it was physically possible.

“We investigate each allegation carefully so that we do not accuse an innocent person of committing the crime,” Oto says. “Even so, the decision to make an arrest is very difficult.”

With a criminal justice system in which more than 99 percent of cases in the lower court are convicted, chances of an acquittal in Japan are rare. Some of the accused, however, have fought diligently and had their cases overturned by higher courts.

One of the most famous cases involves product designer Koji Yatabe, who was arrested in December 2000 for allegedly forcing an underaged woman to touch his exposed penis on a rush-hour train. In a 2006 book titled “Oto-san wa Yattenai” (“Your Father Didn’t Do It”), which was co-authored by Yatabe and his wife, Atsuko, the couple give a detailed account of their two-year ordeal that almost tore the family apart dealing with the allegation.

Despite several questionable details — namely, the fact that Yatabe was wearing a button-up pair of corduroys with a belt that would be very difficult to unbutton on a packed train without looking suspicious at the time of the alleged incident, as well as the difference in height between Yatabe and the woman, which meant he would have had to have squatted down in an unnatural position — the Tokyo District Court found him guilty and sentenced him to a year and two months in prison.

Yatabe was placed in detention for months and was forced to quit his job of 13 years. His wife’s belief in his innocence never wavered, as she sought help from legal experts. Yatabe, meanwhile, had to deal with the conflicted emotions of battling to prove his innocence while not wanting his friends and acquaintances to know what he had been arrested for. He contemplated suicide on numerous occasions and briefly even considered murder-suicide with his family.

A variety of evidence, including a re-enactment video using a life-size train car model provided by Yatabe and his supporters, eventually convinced a high court judge to overturn the lower court’s ruling, ending the two-year legal battle. In 2007, award-winning film director Masayuki Suo released a film based on Yatabe’s experience titled “Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai” (“I Just Didn’t Do It”).

Kenzo Akiyama, one of the lawyers who represented Yatabe in the high court and an expert on misjudgement cases, says 11 acquittals were handed down in groping cases between 2000 and 2001 alone. More recently, Akiyama headed a group of lawyers who won an acquittal in 2009 in the Supreme Court in the high-profile case of Masahiro Nagura, who at the time of his arrest in 2006 had just become a professor at the National Defense Medical College in Saitama Prefecture. The lower and high courts had found Nagura guilty of groping a woman on the train but the Supreme Court reversed the ruling.

“Women are social minorities. Authorities feel as though they are justified in protecting them by believing what the female victims report and keeping the alleged offender detained until he confesses, despite the fact that the victims often mistakenly identify their offender,” says Akiyama, 75. “It’s a delicate situation that we lawyers need to take care of.”

A former judge who stepped down from the bench at the age of 50 to become a lawyer, Akiyama recalls how difficult it is to make such decisions.

“Innocent until proven guilty is easier said than done,” Akiyama says. “There is almost an automatic tendency to lean toward handing down guilty verdicts. Whenever I think about the fear of mistakenly handing down a guilty verdict, I am too afraid to go back to being a judge.”

Akiyama takes time to go through the legal documents necessary to fight his clients’ court battles. In addition, he also collects other evidence to prove their innocence, including riding the same train over and over again to make sure that the victim’s allegations are feasible. Even then, Akiyama has only won a handful of acquittals in which a person is accused of groping.

The impact of the trial and the shameful allegations can drive the defendants over the edge. Nagura tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Akiyama explains that the accused risk everything to stand in court because those who confess are either likely to settle out of court, or be punished with a fine or a suspended sentence, and released.

“Admitting to a crime that you didn’t commit is detrimental because being accused of groping could permanently define who you are — how can you face your wife and children?” Akiyama asks. “These defendants are putting themselves at tremendous risk, but unfortunately, we do not live in a society where you can rely on courts to rule you innocent.”

Given the gravity of false accusations against alleged offenders, most groping cases that make headlines these days are about those who were acquitted. In reality, however, many incidents of groping on trains go unreported, and victims are by and large forgotten.

Hiroko Goto, an expert on gender issues and sexual violence against women, notes that Japanese society fundamentally views women as sex objects and that is why there is more emphasis on telling women how to dress, where to stand on trains and so on.

“I think sexual harassment and groping are fundamentally based on the same mentality — misogyny,” Goto says. “It’s the woman’s fault somehow: they didn’t try to escape, they didn’t ask for help, their skirt was too short or they were standing in a crowded area. We still live in a society in which men decide how women should behave.”

While Goto agrees false accusations should not be tolerated, she stresses the need for an improvement in investigation methods so that courts can rely on more than just the victim’s account. She also calls for more groping charges to be filed under Article 176 of the Penal Code.

Goto, who is also vice president of Human Rights Now, explains that the harsher penalties listed in the Penal Code will spur more thorough investigation into the allegations, as well as represent fairer punishments for crimes committed.

“People don’t think of groping and sexual harassment as a big deal. The fact that groping cases are mostly dealt with under the Anti-Nuisance Ordinance shows that the harm done is viewed as insignificant,” Goto says. “Groping, however, violates a person’s right to sexual autonomy and human dignity, and should not be treated lightly.”

Slowly, however, things are beginning to change — at least in terms of raising awareness about the prevalence of groping.

In June, various police departments in the Kanto region cooperated with local railway companies to launch a campaign to eradicate groping on trains, increasing security and urging victims to consult station staff and police.

In Saitama in early June, local female and male high school students also participated in the campaign, including 10 girls from Urawa Reimei Senior High School. The school had been working closely with the Saitama Railway Police, a special unit under the Saitama Prefectural Police, to protect students from gropers on their way to and from school by holding annual lectures on what to do to protect themselves from getting groped on the train.

Urawa Reimei is one of many schools at which the Saitama Railway Police holds its special lectures. In 2015, it held 28 lectures with a total of 10,870 participants, mainly high school students but also junior college students and new female company recruits throughout the prefecture.

Known for its active involvement in dealing with groping, the Saitama Railway Police has created a handbook that offers examples the types of offenders that exist. It also calls on women to protect themselves by elbowing or glaring at offenders, or by using a bag as a shield.

The Saitama Railway Police has also been distributing anti-groping stickers, originally created by college students at Tokai University in Kanagawa Prefecture. The 2.5-centimeter sticker, which has the phrase “Don’t touch,” can be put on phones or transit pass cases. If the offender continues, victims can peel off the top layer of the sticker, revealing a layer of ink in the shape of a cross that the victim can stamp onto the hand of the groper.

In mid-July, the Metropolitan Police Department added an anti-groping function to its “Digi Police” crime-prevention app. Upon opening the app, the words “Groper — please help me” will appear and, by tapping on it, a voice saying “Please stop!” is played repeatedly.

Tonooka and her mother have also developed anti-groping items — various badges with messages, including one that states “Groping is a crime” and depicts an angry bunny. The project started out with laminated palm-sized cards, but turned into cute badges after Yayoi Matsunaga, a friend of Tonooka’s mother, became interested in the project.

Matsunaga started a crowdfunding project for the badges in November and managed to raise ¥2.12 million in just three months. To make sure the badges would attract young women, she collected 441 design ideas from 178 people and, ultimately, chose five. Matsunaga also established the Osaka-based Chikan Yokushi Katsudo Center (Groping Prevention Activities Center) in January to raise awareness over the issue.

“I couldn’t let my friend’s daughter fight all by herself. She was strong and courageous but it was not a battle that she should have had to fight on her own,” Matsunaga says. “The amazing thing is this badge deters potential offenders and, therefore, false accusations, too.”

To Tonooka’s amazement, she has not been groped since she started wearing the badge. What started out as a lonely mission of one girl has expanded into a virtual social movement. Chikan Yokushi Katsudo Center has been selling the badges online for ¥410 each, and has also distributed them to passers-by as part of a campaign in Tokyo and Osaka.

Urawa Reimei seniors Rio Onuki and Fumie Endo were also quick to express interest in the badges after hearing about them. Matsunaga used some of the donation fund to give the high school 100 badges for its girls to wear.

Tonooka says this project made her realize that she was not in this on her own.

“I spent a long time in solitude. But so many people have stepped up to support the badge project, and it has given me confidence,” Tonooka says. “I want all of the victims out there to know that it is alright to stand up and fight, that they don’t need to cry themselves to sleep anymore.”

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