By Casey Baseel
Japan is very proud of its trains, and in many ways rightfully so. The country has one of the cleanest, most reliable, and most convenient rail networks to be found anywhere on the planet.
But it isn’t perfect, and the undeniably worst part of train travel in Japan is the possibility of encountering a chikan, or groper, onboard. Rail operators have tried various countermeasures to attempt to prevent gropings, but the actions of one East Japan Railway Co (JR East) worker have been drawing criticism after a video taken at Shinjuku Station in downtown Tokyo on Aug 30 recently went viral.
The video shows a station worker on the platform of the Saikyo Line, which connects Tokyo with Saitama Prefecture, its neighbor to the north. Standing outside a northbound train that’s about to depart, the worker, holding a handheld microphone and speaking through the PA system, says:
“We have many security cameras installed, but there are many chikan. Passengers who do not want to be groped, please make use of the rear carriages.”
The message, and choice of words, has drawn a swift backlash online, with Twitter reactions such as:
“So should we just assume we’re going to be groped if we ride in the front cars? Instead of trying to change the victims, try to change the perpetrators.”
“Are they any women who don’t not want to be groped?”
“Companies and society should show the stance that ‘Groping is unforgivable.’”
“I want them to change this to an announcement where they strongly say that groping is a crime.”
“We don’t need to ask victims to defend themselves! What we need to do is to make sure gropers feel guilty.”
So why was the employee recommending that passengers “who don’t want to be groped” use the rear cars? In the evening rush hour, when the video was taken, the front cars on the northbound Saikyo Line tend to be the most crowded, since many stations on the line have exit stairways at the north end of the platform, making for the most convenient way for passengers to exit the station after getting off. Since chikan are most likely to strike on crowded cars, the recommendation to use the rear cars does have some statistical sense behind it.
As for calls to make chikan feel guilty by reminding them that groping is a crime, posters saying “Groping is illegal” are already common in Japanese train stations and haven’t done very much to stop the problem, and maybe it isn’t so shocking that anyone shameless enough to forcefully grope someone isn’t likely to have their behavior altered by an appeal to their decency.
Deplorable and unfair to potential victims as the situation is, some commenters could understand the sentiment of choosing to offer actionable advice instead of an ineffective reassertion that groping is illegal. Others, though, had suggestions for different messages they felt should have been included in the announcement.
“There are a lot of things you could take issue with here, but I think it’s a good to see JR East making verbal announcements about chikan countermeasures.”
“’People who don’t want to be groped…’ isn’t a good way to put it, but I’m glad they’re making an announcement.”
“They should say ‘Groping is a crime, and chikan will be thrown in prison for the maximum sentence.”
“Change it to ‘If you are groped, or see a groper, inform the rail staff immediately.”
One thing just about everyone seems to agree on, though, is that there were better phrases to use than “people who don’t want to be groped,” and that a different choice of words would have avoided accusations of insensitivity stemming from the possible interpretation of “If you’re riding in the front cars, guess that means you don’t mind being groped.” In the video, the station worker making the announcement doesn’t seem particularly used to addressing a crowd, pausing and stuttering as he speaks, so giving the assignment to a more polished public speaker, and/or providing a better prepared statement to begin with, probably would have saved JR East some headaches.
A spokesperson for the company has offered the following apology.
“The intent was to guide passengers towards less crowded carriages, but a portion of the announcement was inappropriate. We deeply apologize to those who were made uncomfortable by the announcement.”
JR’s statement makes it somewhat unclear as to whether the intended guidance towards less crowded cars was meant as a chikan countermeasure or simply for the purpose of greater overall passenger comfort. Either way, though, the fact that the announcement itself acknowledges the problem of chikan suggests that more could be done to address it, such as perhaps expanding the policy of women-only cars on the Saikyo Line (which currently are only available after 11 p.m.) to the earlier evening rush hour as well.