The first time I saw this sign at a Tokyo metro station, I blinked a couple of times. Back home, this would be cause for more than just raised eyebrows. A zealous upholder of equal opportunity principles might report the perpetrator for breach of the law. Barristers would be briefed and several months, perhaps years later, the appeal would be heard – and the case won – and the offending sign scrubbed from the train platform and eventually living memory.
And then the carriage appeared.
Women only carriages? What? Would M be prevented from joining me in a carriage designated for “Women only”?
Apparently, the need to provide a safe haven for female travellers on major city subways arose in response to their treatment at the hands of male predators. These subway offenders – known as “chikan” (molester or pervert) – were unable to keep their hands to themselves on crowded trains, particularly during rush hour, making a nuisance of themselves to women by leaning, pushing and groping.
A 2004 survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and East Japan Railway company showed that nearly 64% of Japanese women in their twenties and thirties had been groped on trains, subways or transit stations in Tokyo, a threefold increase in reported cases of groping over the previous eight years. Authorities had been unable to control this behaviour with awareness campaigns and stricter penalties, as trains are too crowded to identify the perpetrators and victims are often too ashamed to come forward and complain. This prompted Tokyo-based services to introduce women only carriages in 2005. Other cities followed suit.
Of course, men who don’t grope women might be forgiven for feeling a little peeved by this gender bias on trains, particularly if they could otherwise travel more comfortably during peak hour (women only carriages can be less crowded than mixed carriages).
Indeed, some Japanese men don’t believe that women-only carriages solve the groping problem. A few years ago, some even banded together to oppose the separate carriages, led by a Tokyo office worker and boasting about 300 members who claimed that they weren’t effective and smacked of gender discrimination…against men.
Well, yes, I suppose they do discriminate. But a 2009 survey found that 40% of Japanese thought that “men only” carriages were necessary, even if the reasons for having them were not made clear. 
While I could not find more recent information as to whether this movement gained any traction with the authorities, I did turn up a curious reaction to the issue of denying “chikan” their lust for groping: a train café in Tokyo where men can indulge their inner letch. “Services” are carried out in a room refurbished to look like the inside of a carriage on Tokyo’s Yamonote line and patrons are allowed to fondle young women standing at strategic points. The club, with 4000 members, claims to be fighting the crime of molestation by getting chikan off the streets.
Whether this outlet for male molesters has reduced the incidence of groping remains untested, if anything, such activity can only reinforce inappropriate behaviour among men.
So are measures targeted at reducing molestation of women on trains succeeding?
Apparently, despite continuing media awareness, heftier fines and the provision of separate carriages for women, the incidence of groping continues.
It is all too easy for most offenders to get away with it on crowded trains where surveillance is low. On the other hand, being caught brought such shame to one molester that he exacted the highest price of himself.
So was M prevented from boarding a female only carriage? As it turned out, no. Many foreign men unwittingly hop aboard “women only” carriages during rush hour without realising their purpose. And most Japanese women cut them some slack for being ignorant.
Which is not to say that men can’t legally travel in women only carriages. Far from it; but as with so many things in Japan, there is a polite expectation that male passengers co-operate and use their discretion by refraining from boarding carriages designated for women only.
From thereon in, we decided to do likewise.
Even if it meant standing for a short period.
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