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The Financial Times
World / Asia-Pacific
Japan women in fear of subway molesters
By Mariko Sanchanta in Tokyo
Published: December 19 2005 21:48 | Last updated: December 19 2005 21:48
Norika Minakami, a 23-year-old university student, had just alighted from a Tokyo subway train at the peak of Japan’s infamous morning rush hour. As usual, men and women were pressed up against each other on a sweltering July day.
Ms Minakami (not her real name) felt something brush up against her bottom, but thought nothing of it. Then it happened again – this time an unmistakable squeeze. She grabbed the hand of the perpetrator and dragged him out of the train at the next station, where she reported the incident to station staff and the police.
The man was found guilty and forced to pay a Y300,000 ($2,580, €2,155, £1,465) fine, but Ms Minakami still feels a sense of indignation over the incident. “After I yelled on the train that I had been molested, no one came to my help and I was ignored,” she says. “In Japan, molesters are not seen as criminals because these cases happen every day.”
The prevalence of chikan, as molesters are known in Japanese, has become a problem endemic to Tokyo. The number of molestation cases on Tokyo’s trains has almost trebled since 1996, to 2,201 cases in 2004, according to the Tokyo metropolitan police.
In response to the mounting problem, several Tokyo train operators introduced women-only train cars in May, which are seen as a refuge from the chikan.
“We’ve received numerous requests from women who would like us to establish women-only cars on our other train lines,” said a spokesman for East Japan Railway (JR East), the country’s largest train operator. “The over- whelming response from women has been positive.”
Tokyo’s overcrowded train lines make it relatively easy for molesters to operate. The population of Tokyo, one of the world’s biggest cities, swells from 12m to 15m on weekdays, as commuters pour in from the suburbs.
It is estimated that at peak hours, some trains on Tokyo’s main lines carry approaching double their official capacity of passengers.
Experts say the number of chikan has swelled simply because many do not view their actions as a crime.
“There has been a lack of education in Japan regarding molestation and Japan has been relatively slow in labelling it as a crime,” says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University. “More fundamentally, it shows a distinct lack of respect for Japanese women.”
Women are routinely objectified on many of the advertisements that dangle in train carriages, which depict nearly-naked swimsuit models.
Ms Kawanishi believes Japanese women have become more assertive over the years and are now more likely to report an incident. In fact, some men have become afraid to stand next to women on trains for fear of being mistakenly accused of being a chikan.
“If I’m surrounded by women on a crowded train, I become nervous,” says Satoru Aoyama, a credit analyst in Tokyo. “I think they should make more women’s cars on trains.” Other men grasp the dangling straps with both hands so they have an alibi if anything happens.
But the statistics remain grim. According to a survey taken by Tokyo police last year, of 632 women who travelled on rush-hour trains roughly 60 per cent said they had been molested. Only 10 of those, however, had been able to report the incident to the police by bringing the perpetrator along with them.
The women-only carriages in Tokyo are at the rear of the train – which some women have complained is inconvenient – and are well demarcated by pink flowers and other symbols.
There are also large stickers on the cars’ windows that say “Women Only Car”, should a member of the opposite sex mistakenly hop on board. The investment needed to create the carriages is minimal, says JR East.
But the reasons women seek out these carriages are not always straightforward. “I don’t go out of my way to ride on them,” says Akane Kojima, a 30-year-old office worker in Tokyo. “If I were to do so, it wouldn’t necessarily be to escape the perverts but to escape the various bodily odours that men emanate, particularly during the summer months.”