In the West, few social problems are thought of as more typically Japanese than the random molester, known aschikan . He may lurk in a parking garage or dark alley, as if some sort of fungus, but his most common natural habitat is the train. During rush hour, when commuters of all ages, professions, genders are packed together like sardines-to the point that certain stations in Tokyo famously (used to?) have platform workers help people squeeze inside before the doors shut-and the hapless victim has no escape from the perverts embrace. Whether he merely breaths too close and too damply to her neck, rubs his pelvis up against her side, slides his hands over her breasts, crotch or buttocks, slips them into her clothes, or actually opens his own clothing to perform that most inappropriate of public acts, the response is always the same-nothing. The woman may be disgusted or terrified, fellow passengers may see, feel, or hear what is going on, but regardless nobody stops it, nobody calls the police, and of course nobody is ever punished.

Of course, this is all a product of Japan’s unique culture, superficially sexually repressed and yet if you scratch the surface ever so perverted. In other, normal, nations perhaps these chikan would be well-adjusted men, allowed to slake their sexual appetites with their wives or girlfriends, instead of being forced to work like robots for a family that doesn’t love them, virtually castrated by society. With no accepted outlet, he turns to increasingly depraved pornography, which gradually programs his pyche to associate his libidinous urges not just with the image of a pretty girl but outlandish scenarios until merely watching is no longer enough, and without any good Protestant values to reign him in, he feels compelled to take to the streets and do something about his fantasies, heedless of the victim’s rights or the consequences.

At least that is how the common stereotype goes. But really it’s all absolute rubbish.

The New York Times has an article on the prevalence of illegal sexual groping and exposure on the NYC subway system.

This week, as the Police Department announced the arrest of 13 men charged with groping and flashing women in the subways, women around the city nodded. Yes, they said, this had happened to them. Yesterday. Last month. Last fall. Twenty years ago.

“Every girl I know has at least one story,” said Barbara Vencebi, 23, a studio photographer standing outside the No. 6 train station at 116th Street in East Harlem yesterday.

It is a crime abetted by the peculiar landscape of the underworld that is the subway system, by the anonymity of a crowded car where everybody is avoiding eye contact. And by the opportunity for a quick escape at the next stop, to disappear behind a pillar, into a tunnel, up an escalator.

An impromptu survey of riders during the morning rush yesterday found that, for many women who have experienced it, the worst part of the crime is the sense of helplessness. What is the right way to react to a humiliating, but not life-threatening, situation? Should you announce to an entire car of strangers that you have just been violated?

Most of the time, the women said, they seethe inwardly but say nothing.

Certainly Japan has its share of sex crimes, does it really have MORE than its share? I heard so many times over the years about the prevalence of chikan and other sexual assault in Japan, but is it really any more common than other countries, or is the belief in its exceptional commonality just another turn in the decades old racial and cultural stereotypes seen in American media since before World Was II?

As an aside, for an interesting take on chikan, check out the novella J (cover image above) by the nobel prize winning Oe Kenzaburo, in which the Jay Gatsby-ish title character apprentices himself to an elderly subway chikan

7 thoughts on “Chikan”

  1. Part of the reason Japan observers over-emphasize the chikan problem is because they are in Japan and hear about it all the time. And simple observation makes the problem look much worse than it might be, since in Japan it’s viewed as a major social problem that conveniently makes for good press coverage. Essentially, if the sun looks like it’s revolving around the Earth, one can’t be blamed for believing that absent some other explanation. Or perhaps more aptly, there’s a natural bias and comfort in believing in a backward Japan versus a virtuous US.

  2. Well, it’s hard to see porno channels dedicated to simulated subway groping porn and not think something is up.
    These are available on Japan’s Skyperfect in case you are curious.

  3. I still think chikan is a bigger deal in the Japanese consciousness than it is in the US. Do you think the Pussycat Dolls will do a song about subway groping a la the Onynako Club’s “ Otto Chikan“?

    Perhaps Japan is so blessed with low violent crime that something like groping can become a national issue.

  4. I’ve been groped on the Yamanote line several times on my way to work. I’ve seen other women suffering the same. We may not say anything, but we are overwhelmingly disgusted and feel a real need to take a bath. We also feel like throwing up.

    I now drive a car.

  5. DHH, It’s unfortunate that you had to resort to that. I don’t doubt at all that trian molestation is a serious problem in Japan- I just doubt whether or not it’s as RARE in other countries as the attention it is given in Japan implies.

  6. I don’t know when this came about, but I think the groping was serious enough to warrant women-only carriages:

    “With the number of Tokyo commuters, trains are uncomfortably crowded during rush hours (0730-0900 and 1700-1900), despite very frequent services. But now that the problem of women being groped by men in the morning crush has been eliminated by the introduction of women-only carriages, public transport is also very safe, even after dark, and staff and passers-by are generally quick to help confused foreigners.”


    I wonder, too whether this is particular to Japan or not. Could it be because of their tiny apartments and extended families (in-laws) under the same roof that they have no privacy? Are the many love-hotels in Japan the answer to this problem?

    The only other experience I’ve had on trains is in Paris. There you have a different kind of annoyance: people asking for “friendly donations” for minority magazines, or people playing music for half a minute then they go around asking for donations.

    I’m very happy in my car…

    But generally speaking, the Japanese are the most polite, respectful, educated people I have ever met. The security and quality of life in this city is really excellent. Another thing I love about the Japanese is that when they see a problem, they DO something about it. Other citizens of other countries just complain and think that that will solve their problems. I love Japan!

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