Late for work, a man rushes for the train and just manages to squeeze in through the carriage doors a fraction of a second before they ram shut. His relief at having made the train vanishes instantaneously when he feels the cold eyes of his fellow passengers upon him: He has inadvertently entered a women-only carriage and after several very uncomfortable minutes, he shamefacedly exits at the next stop.
Women-only carriages aren’t a particularly new phenomenon in Japan. From 1912 there were separate cars for male and female students on Tokyo’s Chuo Line, and even all-female streetcars running in Kobe from 1920. After the end of World War II, the increasingly urban lifestyle lead to severe overcrowding on some of the central Tokyo train lines. Sometimes women and children couldn’t physically board the trains among the seething mass of humanity during rush hour. As a result, special carriages for women and children were introduced, remaining in use on the Chuo Line as late as 1973.
Nearly every woman who rides crowded city trains on a regular basis has likely experienced being felt up by a chikan
The most recent versions of the women-only carriages were reintroduced for a different reason, however. Increasing incidences of women being groped on crowded trains lead to railway companies bringing back the cars. Nearly every woman who rides crowded city trains on a regular basis has likely experienced being felt up by a chikan (groper).
Until quite recently, it was hard for women to do anything to protect themselves, and embarrassment at drawing attention to their predicament generally meant that the victims suffered in silence. Over the last decade or so, however, an increasing awareness of the issue in the media lead to police and railway companies stepping up their efforts to give victims a voice.
In fact, the pendulum swung so far the other way that some men protested that just accidentally brushing up against a woman on a crowded train was leading to arrests for chikan-like behavior. The problem was even the subject of a popular 2007 movie, “I Just Didn’t Do It” (Sore de mo, Boku wa Yatte Inai), based on the real-life story of a man accused of groping and his battle to prove his innocence.
The Keio Line, which connects Shinjuku with the bed towns of western Tokyo, was one of the first to introduce the new women-only cars. After running them at night on a trial basis in 2001, the system was changed to include all commuter express trains running during the rush hours. In addition to women, boys up to elementary school age, as well as male passengers with disabilities or male caregivers traveling with disabled passengers, may ride in the women-only cars.
So what will the train company do to a regular male passenger who happens to get in? Not much, according to a spokesperson for the Keio Corporation’s PR department. “We can’t force male passengers to leave the women-only cars, so we hope that any man who gets in by mistake would do the decent thing and leave once he realizes. If a man does get in and women on the train are disturbed by his presence, the best thing is to tell a station employee at the next stop.”
In Osaka, carriages for women on the subways were first introduced in 2002 on the Midosuji Line, both the busiest line and the one with the worst chikan problems. A staff member at the Osaka Municipal Transport Bureau says that within a year, the incidences of reported assaults by chikan had dropped by a third, leading to the carriages becoming a permanent fixture on the route during the entire day.
“I have a teenage daughter who commutes to school during the rush hour. Even if I don’t necessarily always ride in the women-only carriage myself, I definitely want my daughter to use it. Teenage girls are particularly attractive to chikan, and I don’t want her to be a victim,” says Hisako of Tokyo.
As a blond foreign woman, Sarah from Yokohama is used to attracting unwanted attention, but can do without it on her commute to work. “I always ride the women-only car when one is available. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t be necessary. But the world isn’t perfect. I’ve had my share of being touched inappropriately and it is horrible. I will do anything to minimize the risk of that happening again.”
In line with the general move towards equal rights for various marginalized groups in Japan, some men are questioning the fairness of the women-only cars in the media and online. “In a way, it is sort of saying that all men are potential gropers,” argues Richard in Tokyo. “If the problem is overcrowding, wouldn’t it better to add more carriages or increase the frequency of trains so they are less crowded?”
However, this view is unlikely to gain wide acceptance anytime soon. Both the railway company staff members who commented for this article say that reaction to women-only carriages is overwhelmingly positive. Men will have to make do with the rest of the train.