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Japanese Railway Seeks to Put Women Out of Gropers’ Reach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A blue-blooded Japanese railway has begun discriminating in favor of women.

In a rare move, the Keio Teito Electric Railway Co. has set up special female-only train cars as a refuge this holiday season from Japan’s notorious chikan, or “gropers,” who squeeze more than just their way onto jampacked trains.

But the policy hasn’t gone down easy with some male commuters.

They gripe that the segregation makes the rest of the train even more crowded for the male majority. And they lament the absence of softer bodies to press against on trains where the concept of personal space is as alien as the idea of driving to work. “Men are bonier,” complained Takashi Kiuchi, 56, an economist who has a long commute.

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How much help the single-sex cars will be is questionable. Keio, which operates more than 300 trains from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station each day, is just one of many railroad companies in the capital. Its experiment will last just through this month and will apply to one segregated car on its last Thursday night train and last two Friday night trains.

This is the season when Japan’s “salarymen” tend to drink even more than usual at year-end parties. But the groping happens at all hours and is particularly bad during morning rush hour. “It’s too crowded to implement this plan then, but it’s better to do something than nothing,” said railroad spokesman Satoshi Kaizuka.

Groping Has Become an Epidemic in Nation

Groping has grown into an epidemic throughout Japan, where nearly all city and suburban dwellers commute to work by train or subway. It is a paradox in a country reputed as safe, with far fewer reported thefts, rapes, murders and serious crimes than the U.S.

Plug the kanji characters for chikan--which literally means “idiot” or “foolish man"--into an Internet search engine and up pop several thousand pornographic Web sites.

A few years ago, Samu Yamamoto’s wrote of his fetish in “Diary of a Chikan” and “Confessions of a Chikan,” two popular sellers. Finger Press, a magazine devoted to the topic, suggested the best trains and stations to frequent--for example, those where schoolgirls board the trains en masse. The magazine folded recently.

Sex Clubs Set Up Mock Subway Cars

In Tokyo, sex clubs feature mock subway cars complete with hanging straps, taped train noise and women who can be legally pawed for $70 to $150 for 35 minutes. Gropers choose outfits for their targets, from “office lady” and nurse get-ups to a McDonald’s uniform to the most popular choice: the schoolgirls’ sailor-like blouse and pleated skirt.

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Customers expect the targets to resist initially so they can “get that more authentic feeling,” said Fumio Sato, manager of the Caprico Club in the red-light Shinjuku district.

“All men have such desire when they’re in a packed train and a woman is standing in front of them,” Sato said. “The point is whether they take action, which is where their judgment comes in.”

He contends that his club provides a community service, allowing men to indulge their fantasy legally.

Tokyo’s commuter trains provide a far more fertile environment for groping than most trains in the Western world. It would be hard to exaggerate just how congested the lines are: Consider a crowded elevator in the U.S. Then imagine another dozen people pushing in. Then another half a dozen. Get caught on the opposite side of the car when the train doors open at your stop, and it can be nearly impossible to fight your way across the nine feet to the door.

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“If the cycle of breathing doesn’t match with the people next to you, it can be painful,” said Kiuchi, the economist, who commutes more than an hour each way on one of Tokyo’s busiest lines.

Trains on the Yamanote line, which rings central Tokyo and is one of the worst for chikan, carry triple their ideal capacity at rush hour. Some stations even have professional “people pushers” on the platforms to assist in packing the maximum numbers inside.

The sense of violation a stray hand brings is intense: Even a woman who earns her college tuition getting groped at the Caprico Club says she’s repelled when it happens on the subway. “It made me really upset,” said the 21-year-old woman who asked not to be named. “Here, this is my job, it’s how I earn my living. But on the train, I was providing some sort of service without pay.”

Explained Hidehiko Sekizawa, director of Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in Tokyo, “Men don’t realize that it makes a woman feel bad all day or understand the psychological damage.”

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Japan’s tolerance for pornography doesn’t help: Sexually explicit magazines are sold openly at convenience stores, and nude women are prominently featured in many newspapers read on trains--when there’s room.

Hatsuo Taniguchi, a former conductor who for years was known as the “chikan catcher” on the notoriously crowded Yamanote line, divides gropers into two types: the chronic offenders and those who succumb to temptation on the spot. April and July tend to be the worst months, he said, because the chikan are more aggressive when girls from the countryside arrive for school in Tokyo.

Conductors and railroad officials say passengers who witness groping often do nothing to help. And subway crowds are so dense that perpetrators often go unidentified.

An Embarrassing Time for Screaming Victims

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Screaming for help takes guts. “It was humiliating,” said Kanako Shimura, 24, who once shouted for an unseen groper to stop. “I was the victim, but all the attention [from other passengers] was on me.”

“I don’t want to be late for work, so I just ignore it,” said Chikako Terada, 22, a secretary at a computer firm who says she has been groped at least 10 times. “I hate it so much, I don’t even want to get on the train.”

Still, rail officials say women are growing more willing to report groping incidents, encouraged by police campaigns. Statistics are hard to come by on most lines, but the Keio line says it received 205 complaints in the first half of 2000, compared with 276 for all of 1998.

Sometimes victims grab the perpetrator’s hand and drag him to the station police. Occasionally, plainclothes police nab the chikan, who have included executives, teachers, even fellow police officers. The suspects frequently deny the accusations, and getting proof is tough. Penalties are often just a signed apology and loss of face, but they can also be as much as six months in prison and a $2,000 fine.

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Segregated cars for women and children are not new. They were used on the Japan National Railroad from 1947 to 1973 because women and children were having trouble even getting on the packed trains; the cars were abolished in favor of seats designated for the elderly and disabled.

Late last week, the Keio women’s cars were standing room only, though far less crowded than the mixed cars. Most of the women said they were grateful. Yoko Sawaguchi, 24, termed it “revolutionary.”

Some men applauded the experiment too. “I’m not the type, but there are some weird, scary men out there,” said Saito Etsuji, 23.

Tatsuya Sakurasawa, 30, argued that the segregated cars penalize innocent men. “Most railroad passengers are decent people,” he said.

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But told that his girlfriend, Shimura--who had screamed for help--had been groped twice, he said, “In that case, they should have the special cars on every train.”

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Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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