The world of (Japanese) work

We perceive Japan as a nation of hard-working people who have successfully taken the best ideas of the Western world, engineered their features into new products which they have sold back to the West.

As I survey the trappings of my existence, I see a Canon camera, Sony television, Toshiba travelling lap top, and a Honda motor car (yes, my Honda Accord Euro was made in Japan, not in Thailand, China or the US).

If I can sum up in three words what my Japanese-made items represent to me, they would be ‘performance’, ‘value for money’ and ‘reliability’.  I imagine that my products would have been made by workers steeped in the culture of ‘Just in time’, a system of production that does away with storage of unused inventory, and ‘Kanban’, a demand-driven scheduling system that delivers signals to replenish components required at a particular point along the production chain.

Yes, Japan has been terribly clever over the past several decades.  But at what cost?

Apparently, some employees work so hard that they have died on or from the job.  Examples include a worker who died from a heart attack at the age of 34, having worked a 110 hour week.  Another was a bus driver who had worked more than 3,000 hours in a year without a day off in the 15 days before had a fatal stroke at 37.  A third was a 22-year-old nurse who died of a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month. Just 22 years old.

If ‘karoshi’ or ‘death by overwork’ had become a social problem by the 1980’s, then so had ‘karojisatu’, or suicide resulting from overwork and stress.  In the period 1997 to 2011, compensated cases of karoshi and karojisatsu rose from 47 to 121 and from two to 66, respectively.  Long work hours, heavy workloads, lack of job control, routine and repetitive tasks, interpersonal conflicts, inadequate rewards, employment insecurity, and organizational problems were some of the underlying causes of workers having taken their lives.

The phenomenon of worker suicide has spawned a game of the same name.  At each of the fifty stages of the game, players are presented with a new challenge, the final stage involving a fight with the boss.  The goal of each level of play is – you guessed it – to self-destruct.  And make sure that you have fun while killing yourself.

Japan is not taking the problem of overwork and worker suicide lightly.  Some measures to combat their effects include:

• Reducing working hours and overwork.
• Providing adequate medical support and treatment of work-related stress.
• Encouraging dialogue between workers and management to implement healthy and efficient work practices and places.

Such measures, however, take a while to gain traction.  In the interim, what does the Japanese worker do to manage the effects of working too hard?

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Having a snooze is the obvious solution.  And what better place to do that than on a train?

As I travelled the Tokyo metro, I noticed that most of my somnolent companions were in the seated position although I did catch a few grabbing a bit of shuteye while standing up.  I have read that some workers will resort to sleeping on train floors, but am a bit sceptical about this; there is little enough floor space available on a peak hour train for standing, let alone lying down.

Of course, there is nothing remarkable about falling asleep on a commuter train.  I have given in to the Sandman on Sydney’s City Rail network on more than one occasion, usually as a result of the twin effects of the train’s rhythm and the amount of alcohol imbibed during a long lunch.  My state of slumber has occurred after lunch time and usually towards evening.  And that’s where I found an interesting variation in Japan: many workers slip into slumber during the morning peak.

Plausible explanations abound for this state of early morning drowsiness: a young child unable to sleep through the night, a late night on the town, the cumulative effect of a weeks’ worth of hour-long commutes, overheated trains.

But is it enough to power-nap on the train?  Apparently not.

Being asleep at work and, by extension, on trains, is a statement about how hard a person works and is a measure of respect for that person.  There is no shame in falling asleep at work.  This is the mark of an employee who works so hard that they have no time to sleep at home and must therefore sleep at work.  It is both Legitimate and Good. There is even a word for being asleep at work, ‘inemuri’, which means ‘sleeping while present’. And it comes with a set of rules:

• The (sleeping) worker must sit up and look engaged, ready to wake up at any moment and do something useful.
• If you’re the boss, sleeping at work is a sign of confidence as it shows that the company can’t do without you.

Sleeping at work is not a practice that is exclusive to Japan.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband remarked that he’d passed an employee in another section of the office who was fast asleep at his desk at lunch time.  I too have succumbed while at work.

My first job out of university was as a town planning assistant at a large Cape Town local authority.  My desk was partly obscured by a floor to ceiling partition, visible only to a couple of other employees who had cause to pass my space en route to theirs.

My lunchtime ritual involved a half hour walk around a few city blocks followed by a quick snack of my pre-packed lunch and a  half-hour nap on the floor behind my desk, my body contorted to minimise detection and with half an ear on alert for a superior’s footfall.

I wasn’t the only one.  The only reason I knew about my co-conspirator in sleep was because his feet protruded from under the table he used as camouflage.

Unlike our Japanese counterparts, there was no way that we would have dared fallen asleep sitting at our desks.  That would have been to invite firm rebuke for napping on company time, irrespective of how much or, in our cases, how little work we had to do.  And while dozing on the job wasn’t a sackable offence (the  only way to guarantee that fate was to be caught with one’s hand in the till), it wasn’t something that was going to help ones’ campaign to climb the corporate ladder either.

If anyone saw us, they never said anything.

But I always wondered why I never got that promotion I applied for.

 

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Basement delights

When I saw the basement food hall of the Bon Marche department store in Paris 10 years ago, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven.  If a temple to food existed, then surely this was it.

Turns out, I haven’t seen anything yet.

Cut to the end of our morning visit to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.  After we’ve finished gorging ourselves on the visual feast of seafood, we wander back towards the Ginza.  Our path of travel takes us right to the front door of the Mitsukoshi department store, one of the Ginza’s most glamorous stores.

We take the escalators to the clothing and accessories floors.  M – like a few other men I know – has a relatively low tolerance threshold for inspecting fashion items so I suggest that we might both be happier in the basement.

He agrees without hesitation.

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The displays are mesmerizing.

The only thing that stops me from taking more shots of the food offer is an advancing store attendant who politely, but very firmly, asks that I desist.  So I do.  I don’t want a scene in one of the Ginza’s finest stores.  Or risk public humiliation for a few souvenir photos.

Of course, there are many other basement food halls in Tokyo as well as elsewhere in Japan.  And while I am chastened by my experience of having been ticked off as a food papparazza in Mitsukoshi, I can still inspect – and buy – the wares.

This sight greets us across the tracks of Shinjuku station every morning.

Takashimaya has its origins in early nineteenth century Japan, when the first shop to sell kimonos opened in Kyoto.  Today, Takashimaya is one of the largest department store chains worldwide.  In addition to its Japanese stores, it has a presence in Singapore and Taiwan.  For six days, we become two of its regular customers.  Its name rolls off my tongue as if spoken by a local.

The Shinjuku store is no mean affair at 15 floors.  It has everything you’d expect from an upmarket department store, including three restaurant floors.

And a basement food hall.

We’ve read in the Lonely Planet Guide that a good time to stock up on some of the freshest and most affordable sashimi is after 6 p.m. when prices are slashed and the crowds start to dissipate.  Sashimi is not the only item that is discounted; we also find salads, chicken and pork skewers, and various other prepared foods at up to 30% off the regular price.

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A sample of our discount take away dinners from Takashimaya.  Note the little ice packs that are included with every food purchase to ensure maximum freshness between store and home.

After only a few days in Japan, we start to have cheese cravings.  Dairy is not a natural feature of the Japanese diet, but you can get cheese at the department stores, even if some of it is rather on the expensive side.  We do not find any discounted cheese.  Ever.

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A red cheddar from the bottom end of the price range.

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This one is a little dearer and has been bought, together with a baguette, for breakfast on the onward journey to Yudanaka the following day.

Unfortunately, we forget to take it out of the fridge before checking out.  As we await our shinkansen at Tokyo station, we mourn our loss and the prospect of a depleted breakfast.

From hereon in, we switch to locally made yogurt.  It tastes good and is healthier, cheaper and more versatile.

Best of all, it’s still dairy.

 

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A market on steroids

Sydney prides itself on its fish market, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.  It’s a great place for Sydneysiders to buy fresh fish, as well as for tourists to ogle at and sample the diverse seafood offer.

But the honour of largest wholesale fish market in the world belong’s to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, located on a small strip of reclaimed land between Ginza and the waterfront. A few facts:

  • Five million pounds of seafood, worth about US$28 million, is sold in the fish market each day.
  • The market covers more than 23 hectares and contains more than 1,500 stalls.
  • 60,000 people work at the market, using more than 32,000 vehicles including trucks, vans, hand carts, bicycles, wagons and forklifts.
  • The highest ever price for a sushi grade bluefin tuna was US$173,600 for a 444 pound fish in January 2001.

There are a few things you can do at the market.

One is to visit the tuna auction which kicks off at 5.25 a.m. but is strictly limited to 120 visitors per day on a first come, first served basis.

If you prefer not to get up with the sparrows and take a punt on getting a slot to view the auction, you can enjoy a leisurely seafood breakfast at one of the many restaurants in the alleyways that adjoin the fish market.

These alleyways are chock full of shops selling seafood, cooking utensils, fruit, veg and various other oddments.

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There are several restaurants to choose from, most of them catering to no more than 20 persons.  A queue outside is a good sign, although the one we select – which has no queue – is almost full so it must be good.

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It’s a simple affair with half a dozen tables and modest decor.

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But when it comes to the food, the chef delivers.  Sashimi with caviar and a single prawn, mounted on a bed of rice, accompanied by a dab of wasabi and dipping sauce.  Included is a bowl of miso with a crab claw floating in it.  A bottomless mug of tea washes it all down.  The sashimi is the freshest and best we’ve tasted ever.  The miso isn’t that bad either, but removing the meat from the crab claw was never meant to be done with chopsticks.

Suitably fortified, we head off in the direction of the fish market.

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Due to a lack of signage – or maybe our inability to read Japanese – we inadvertently divert through the fruit and veggie market which, of itself, is worth a look for the exotic, in-season strawberries.

To get to the wholesale area of the fish market, we run the gauntlet of trucks, forklifts and other vehicles that operate outside the market.  Safely inside, we are blown away by the sheer scale of the place.

Six to eight rows of goods laden aisles, each at least 100 metres long, vendors slicing, dicing, packing and selling.  Tuna, salmon, prawns, squid, mussels the size of a human fist, eel, roe, it’s all there.  Plus stuff we’ve never seen before.  My camera shutter is in overdrive.

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By 9.30 a.m. it’s starting to wind down and half an hour later, it’s all over.

Until tomorrow.

 

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Torii, torii, torii!

You will not travel far in Japan before seeing a torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.

They first appeared in Japan over a thousand years ago, the oldest existing stone torii having been built in the 12th century and belonging to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture.

Torii were traditionally made from wood or stone, but these days you will also find them made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate torii in gratitude to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. [1]

Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of torii, each bearing the donor’s name.This is the best place to get your fix of torii.

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Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions often found on each side of a shrine’s entrance.  In the case of the Inari Shrines, they are foxes (see picture below) rather than dogs.IMG_3894One of many torii gates at the World Heritage Listed site at Nikko.IMG_3249A timber torii at Nikko.IMG_3253This one in a Tokyo park seems purely for decoration.IMG_3301A utilitarian torii in central Matsumoto, overshadowed by the ugliest edifice in the town.IMG_3590

A modern take on the torii gate?  The Mitsubishi shipbuilding shrineyard in Nagasaki.IMG_4199

One of the three top rated scenic views – and possibly the most photographed torii gate in the world? – in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine is another World Heritage Listed site built over water and its associated torii gate appears to be floating on the water at high tide.  It is less than an hour’s train and ferry commute from Hiroshima.IMG_4272

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Lining up to take a photo of the torii.  As one does in Japan.  IMG_4277

Be patient, your turn will come.

 

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[1]               http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torii

Big brother is not watching you

I regard Sydney as a reasonably safe place.  In public I do tend to keep my handbag either tucked under my arm, or with its contents well hidden from view, but that’s about as much as I feel compelled to do to protect my belongings.

It doesn’t surprise me to see that my city ranks number 12 on a list of the top 15 safest cities in the world.  It surprises me even less that Tokyo is number one on this list.

Japan is well-known for its high level of safety and low levels of crime, making it an attractive destination especially for those travelling alone or with children.  Violent crimes and murders are rare and terrorist acts almost unheard of.  Respect for human rights is high and stringent laws prohibit the possession of firearms.

The 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the third safest place in the world, behind New Zealand and Iceland, countries with much smaller populations than Japan.

In addition to a superior level of safety and security, the general honesty in Japanese society is evident from the number and type of items handed in at Lost and Found counters in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  In 2008, more than two million items were handed in, among which were umbrellas, clothing, wallets, ID cards and mobile phones.  The amount of cash among the lost property totaled 2.7 billion yen. [1]

We had barely left the airport terminal before evidence of this honesty manifested itself.  When handing over a banknote for a purchase in any other country, one can expect rounding to occur, usually in an upwards direction, before receiving one’s change.  Japan is not like that.  Expect not only to receive change, but to receive the exact amount down to the last yen.  Your wallet will soon be at risk of bursting with an accumulation of unwanted coin.

This environment seems to have fostered a relaxed attitude in locals towards personal safety and the security of their possessions.  In one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjuku, we regularly travelled on the escalators behind people whose wallets were hanging out of their back pockets or whose backpacks were open for all to inspect the contents within.

And it didn’t stop there.

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These bags on a suburban train remained unattended for a full five minutes while their owner was occupied in the toilet.  In some parts of the world, we would have hastily made for the other end of the train or, worse, tried to force a door and take our chances by hurling ourselves from the train before it blew up.  Of course, no such thing was going to happen here.  And the only people paying any attention to the bags were us.

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Another example of temporary “bag abandonment”, this time in Starbucks at Matsumoto Station.  Again, the owners had disappeared either to relieve themselves or order a coffee.  Their possessions didn’t warrant a second glance.  Other than from us.

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The tasting room of a saké brewery in Yudanaka, the bottles lined up on the counter for a self-administered free tasting.  We could drink as much as we wanted of the available range.  And we did.  The sales person was discreetly occupied in another room, available only when we were ready to make a purchase.  Even the expensive stuff in the cabinet was unsecured.

There is a down side to coming from one of the safest countries in the world, however.  When Japanese travel abroad, their lack of situational awareness can make them easy targets.

In the first few months of 2013, 10 Japanese died in an Algerian hostage crisis, three Japanese tourists were killed in February in a vehicle and knife attack in Guam, while two weeks later, four Japanese were among 19 tourists who died in a balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

An article in (the Japanese) Weekly Playboy of 25 March 2013 warned against taking anything for granted abroad and cautioned travellers to hide their wallets and credit cards, and above all to stifle their sympathy for animals and children who could potentially cause them harm.

Whatever happens to Japanese travellers abroad – and I don’t doubt that they’re savvy enough to become street smart – there is nowhere I’ve been in all my years of travel where the level of safety is anywhere near that found in Japan.

Well, to be fair…..perhaps New Zealand.

 

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For the love of a cat

As we passed through one of Asakusa’s many shopping alleys, I was bemused to see four middle-aged men fawning over a tortoiseshell cat perched on some goods outside a shop.  The cat seemed quite accustomed to the attention of strangers and I soon found myself joining in.

I shall declare an interest here: I love cats.  We have three felines at home who are a big constant in our lives.  When travelling, I do miss them.

But on this trip, cat therapy was close at hand.  Japan is home to some 79 cat cafés and, for a fee, I could get my fix of felix.  While the cat café’s primary purpose is to give city apartment dwellers – often having to work long hours and unable to keep pets – the ability to pet a cat in a controlled environment, tourists are welcome to partake too.

For a background to the cat café culture in Japan, see here. 

I had put M on notice that we were not allowed to leave Japan without visiting at least one cat café.  As we ticked off various destinations on our itinerary, I mentally charted lost opportunities, from the sixth floor cat café near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from our hotel, to the cat café in Kyoto near the Nishiki markets.

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I did turn off the flash, honest!

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We will probably never get to pet Liz, Chocolat, Pen or Karin in Kyoto.  M felt that 1200 Yen (about A$12 at the time) was a bit steep for 30 minutes.  Skinflint.

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During some down time in Nagasaki we found ourselves near the city’s sole cat café, Neko Fuku Fuku.  We agree that “it’s time”.  I argue for an hour, at 800 Yen, but am beaten down by M to half an hour at 500 yen.  It’s still a bargain compared to Kyoto and Tokyo prices.

With its four metre frontage and see through front window, Neko (meaning cat) Fuku Fuku doesn’t  look like the kind of flash cat café we’ve read about in the bigger cities.  Those which serve tea, coffee, cakes and snacks.  Fuku Fuku has a sort of utilitarian feel to it.  We get the feeling that one comes here strictly to pet the cats.

There are two doors which separate the street from the cats, one at the public entry behind which is a vestibule and the other at the end of the vestibule.  This is obviously for security purposes, as an escapee cat would stand no chance in the Nagasaki traffic.

We take off our shoes and don slippers.  The female proprietor speaks enough English to ask us how much time we want, take our cash and start the clock.  We are even given a “five-minute bell” to remind us not to overstay.  She is friendly enough, but does not engage.  If I have any questions about cat cafés – and I do – then I’m not going to get them answered here.

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There are nine cats in all, five in the room fronting onto the street and four in a room at the back.  Two are in a cage for some reason.  All but one younger cat are fast asleep.  Now I know that cats sleep a fair bit, but these barely twitch an ear on our arrival.  Have we come at siesta time?

I set to and pat the tortoiseshell in the doll’s house.  It curls its paws, but does not purr.

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I move to the tabby on the orange shag pile and get a similar reaction, then to the tabby with white markings in the window.  And so it continues.

The room at the back has a couple of tables and chairs on raised tatami mats, suggesting the possibility of refreshments.  None is offered.  Perhaps we need to stay an hour to qualify for that.

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The cats are obviously well fed and well looked after.  Their coats are smooth and sleek to the touch, a sure sign of good health.  They may be a bit dopey, but they are not unfriendly.  Each one responds in some way to our ministrations, the youngest quite playful at times.  The establishment is neat and tidy, and spotlessly clean.  If there are cat toilets anywhere, they have been discreetly placed out of sight and there is no smell of cat urine inside.

As we stood there, I wondered where these cats might have come from.  Apparently some 200,000 abandoned cats are destroyed in Japan every year, so there is a role for cat cafés – in a small way – to do their bit by taking in rescue animals.

Questions have been asked about the welfare of the cats.  There is a view that large numbers of cats do not thrive in confined spaces and that they might find such an environment stressful.  This was not evident in Neko Fuku Fuku when we visited, but it may be at other times and in other cat cafés.  Cat cafés are also required to obtain a licence to operate and to comply with strict regulations governing the protection of animals.

What about the health of the cats?  Do the Nagasaki cats ever see the sun?  Does the proprietor take them somewhere where they can run and play?  Can they have a good life without going outside?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that indoor cats can live longer than their “free to roam” counterparts.  The home is free of both natural (e.g. dogs) and artificial threats (e.g. cars), although indoor cats generally need more stimulus and are more demanding of humans.

My thoughts returned to the Nagasaki cats, cooped up in what I reckoned was less than 50 square metres.  Would a few cat trees, toys and the stimulus of passing humans be enough to promote longevity in their case?

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A week later, we were on the island of Naoshima.  Despite the island’s tiny population – it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants – it supports a cat café.  This is a very charming venue in a lovely garden setting and if it had been the first cat café I’d seen in Japan, I’d have found it hard not to venture inside.

But by now I was over it.  I wanted the company of my own cats and I particularly wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live in our home.

Not that they would know anything different.

 

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Can gender discrimination stop bad behaviour?

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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.

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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.[1]   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. [2]

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.[3] 

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.[4]

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.[5]

From thereon in, we decided to do likewise.

Even if it meant standing for a short period.

 

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