Groped, Scared, Disgusted: Stories Of Dealing With Chikan In Japan
Groping is a crime we should all be talking about until it stops
In light of the #metoo movement making traction in Japan, we reached out to seven women who shared their first-hand accounts of dealing with assaults and harassment on Japan's rail system. They shared their stories hoping that it will help destigmatize the issue and bring it to the forefront of public discourse.
In early April, a video of a foreign man groping a woman on a Tokyo train was shared around various online Japan communities and networks, inciting outrage and disbelief. Although the angered responses and open discussions were a positive sign of the public attitude to sexual assault, in reality, this is an occurrence that’s still all too common.
Known as ‘chikan’ (痴漢) in Japanese, gropers typically take advantage of their surroundings, knowing that the victims’ fear of causing a scene, and the anonymous nature packed public transport (where personal space perimeters are challenged) makes it difficult for victims to call out or report the incidents.
Over the years, Japan has continued to try and find ways to fight the issue. Some solutions have included the introduction of women-only train carriages, and signs encouraging commuters to speak up if they witness an assault take place, playing on the group mentality that often keeps people quiet; ‘together we can stop chikan.’ In 2010, the Saikyo Line, a line notorious for groping, had cameras installed in an attempt to deter future assaults. More recently, a number of other anti-chikan initiatives have been put into place, including pervert branding stickers put into place by the Saitama Prefecture Police department, and popular warning badges, which were created by a 17-year-old high school student.
But chikan eradication is still a work in progress. As the Metropolitan Police Department’s recent reports shows, 2017 saw 1,750 cases of groping or molestation reported, 30 percent of which occurred during the peak rush hour times of 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. The report also states that 51.3 percent of all chikan cases occurred on trains, while another 20 percent happened in train stations. Given the insidiousness nature of the behavior and the difficulty in prosecuting cases, chances are that statistic is far higher.
We spoke to seven women, both foreign and Japanese, who were eager to share their stories in hope that speaking out about the issue would help others find some solidarity in their collective experiences. In the name of full transparency, all the women in this article are personal acquaintances and these experiences have been shared as a response to social media call outs and conversations we’ve had in person. Here are their stories.
Megumi, 25, Japanese/American
I had it happen to me twice. Once when I was in 9th grade, five boys on the train started to take pictures of my legs and were trying to look into my skirt, laughing about it. The first time it happened, I was frustrated and felt hopeless. We were surrounded by adults, I wondered why none of them stepped in to say anything.
The second, I was a freshman, a student, a senior in high school who was standing right next to me just started touching my hips. I was scared frozen. The way he started touching me was so casual. I got off eight stops early and walked because I couldn’t bear it any longer.
[B]y the time I was 15, I already had a wrong idea of how girls should be treated.
Ako, 26, Japanese
When I was a junior high school student, it took me an hour on the packed train to get to school every morning. It (chikan) happened to me almost every day. There were subtle incidents — like being stuck next to a person who was reading a book, holding it at the same height as my breasts. When the train would shake, the hands holding the book would touch my breasts.
At first, I thought it was an accident, but as I turned my body, the hands would follow me. When I realized that it might be chikan, I’d get off the carriage, wait for the next train and was, as a result, late for school. I never felt like I could stand up to it, I always felt so empty after these situations happened, so tried to avoid thinking about it.
Looking back, I think it has affected me emotionally and relationship-wise. I had no experience or knowledge about men at the time, so it made me think that’s what guys want and it’s normal. I learned that it wasn’t right when I was older, but by the time I was 15, I already had a wrong idea of how girls should be treated.
Jo, 37, Australian, 11.5 years living in Japan
I was living in Osaka and I was working an admin job for a recruitment company at the time. I had to take the subway, and I never bothered with the ladies carriage. I’m taller than all my female Japanese buddies, so never felt threatened or at risk.
I could see the guy’s face in the reflection of the window. He just stared at my reflected face with no expression at all. It was like a horror movie.
I was listening to my iPod (this was back in my mid-20s) and the train was crowded but not too packed. I had a skirt on as it was spring, and I was about the second row from the door. I was close enough to see my face reflected in the window. I felt something touch the back of my thigh and assumed it was someone’s bag or an accidental moment. Then, the thing touching me moved slightly up my inner thigh… then higher up my inner thigh… then was touching the outside of the crutch of my underwear. I completely froze. I felt like I wanted to faint and vomit at the same time.
I could see the guy’s face in the reflection of the window. He just stared at my reflected face with no expression at all. It was like a horror movie. I shifted my whole body before his hand could move anywhere else and, as I was just starting to think, “Ok.. what am I going to do next…,” the train stopped and I stepped off the train at that station.
Older me is quite angry that no one I told (including my boss) suggested that I contacted the police. I even remember one guy at work telling me that I needed to be more careful as I was cute and had long, gaijin legs. In hindsight, it makes me want to jump in a time machine and go punch him in the face. I still love Japan more than anywhere, but this was just a really awful thing that happened.
Yuri, 25, Japanese
My first chikan experience was when I was 16 years old. An old guy started grinding himself on me on the metro. At first, I didn’t notice, but then it continued for so long that I turned around and when I looked back, I saw he had an erection. I was so scared I couldn’t do anything. I think my school uniform made me a target.
Another experience I had, I was touched by the same man three times. After the third time he tried to touch me I ran after him, but there were so many people at the station and he was so fast. When he was far enough away he looked back at me and laughed, just to say like he’d won. I’ve come to realize that I really have to be wary if the train is full. I’m still scared to use train when it is packed, so I usually use the women-only carriage.
I felt disgusted, angry confused, but mostly scared.
Noemi, 26, Japanese
I think I was 13 or 14 years old. I was on a packed train and a guy behind me started rubbing himself on me. Also when I was around the same age, I was on a packed train and the guy next to me was moving weirdly. He was crossing his arms but somehow he reached around me and started touching the bottom of my bra, along the inner bra wire. He was slowly sliding his finger back and forth under my bra. It felt like it lasted for ages. I was frozen, I did nothing, I just got off the train, and went to school. I felt disgusted, angry confused, but mostly scared.
When I was young, this type of harassment was just something we had to go through in silence. So I’d like to ask people who witness harassment to intervene if they can. I am mad, but not at myself for not standing up to it. I’m mad at the men who get away with it.
Manami, 26, Japanese
There was no physical groping in my case, but I wanted to share my story to have a broader discussion about what people consider sexual harassment to be here in Japan, and the extent in which women face it in their daily lives.
It happened about a year ago, on my daily commute. I was getting the same morning train every day and started to recognize some faces in the same carriage. One day, I noticed a man, probably in his 60s, standing uncomfortably close to me. There was some room to move around, so I did just that, but he started following me around. At first, I thought I was overreacting, but this continued for the next three days.
When I was young, this type of harassment was just something we had to go through in silence.
When I first had a hunch he might be following me, I was too unsure to do anything. So I just kept quiet. But when it had happened three days in a row, I was sure that it wasn’t just me. I was still too self-conscious to confront him, or make drastic movements or ‘run away.’ I just decided to leave home a bit early and get on a different train to him.
I felt defeated. I was pissed I had to change my schedule to avoid his harassment. But what enraged me the most is that he could be doing exactly the same thing to other women.
K, 23, Japanese
When I was a university student I was on a train heading from Shimokitazawa to Shibuya. After a few minutes on the train I noticed someone was touching me on the hips, but I wasn’t 100% sure, so I kind of waited to see if he kept touching me or not.
After a few minutes, I realized he was definitely a chikan because he started to try to touch my breasts. From that time I was only thinking about how I could catch him. My train got to Shibuya station and everyone was getting off. I moved against the flow of people and stayed on a train. He was behind me so if I didn’t get off the train, he couldn’t either. After everyone got off, there was only him and me. I grabbed his shoulder bag and asked him “did you touch me?” He said “no,” he didn’t. He kept saying no over and over but I took him to the station staff.
I was shocked at how brave I and confident I felt. I remember at that time no one helped me, even though people around me should’ve had noticed that I was fighting a chikan when I grabbed his bag or took him to the station staff. It’s a little bit scary to ask strangers for help, but I think it’s incredibly important.
Recurring themes: The fear of speaking up
A common theme that ran true for many of the women interviewed for this article was that their assumptions of how they thought they would have behaved were challenged when they found themselves being assaulted. As Megumi explained, “I wish I could say that I spoke up, but that bravery seems to disappear when you’re in the middle of being touched.” Noemi suggested that to combat the issue, the wider public must take responsibility looking out for fellow commuters and stepping in if they see something inappropriate:
“I know how it feels to be scared and not be able to do anything. I’d like to tell people that if they see something like that happening to try to intervene and stop it.”
What to do if you’re assaulted
If you can, speak up. If you find yourself being assaulted, you are in the full realm of your rights to speak up, and make a scene. As we saw in these stories, finding the courage to do so can be difficult, however, once the awkward barrier of silence has been broken, it’s much more likely that others will step in to help intervene.
Find the station attendant. There you can report the situation. You can also take the perpetrator with you, or if somebody else has stepped in to help, chances are they’ll hand over custody to a station official.
If you’re too scared to say anything, leave the situation as quickly as possible. Get off at the next stop, find a moment to collect yourself, and don’t be ashamed of being upset. Your safety should always be the number one priority, so do what feels safe.
Speak to someone about it. Sometimes the best way to work through an event is to talk it out, whether with friends, family or a professional. Sexual assault is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence, one that’s typically swept under the rug, which enables more perpetrators to get away with their actions. In speaking we raise awareness and with that awareness comes diligence. If you’re finding it difficult to find someone to speak to, consider contacting Tell Japan, an English language network of counselors and mental health support workers.
Have you ever experienced being groped on the train in Japan or in your home country? What did you do? What do you wish you had done? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org