|An anti-chikan poster I found in the subway: "Groping is a crime!"|
with a phone number for consultation with a female police officer.
As a woman in Japan, I'm much less likely to be cat-called or whistled at in public, and I'm probably less likely to be raped or otherwise violently assaulted than in other countries, but I think I'm much more likely to get harassed or groped by 痴漢 chikan (pervert, molester, literally "stupid jerk"). It would seem, anyway, that such perverted people in Japan have stranger goals than in America. We're used to thinking such people simply want sex, but in Japan, the creativity of both methods and goals knows no bounds. In my case, the guy's goal was putting his fingers in women's mouths. Luckily I realized something was wrong before he got to that point, and got away after he'd only touched my face with a very foul-smelling hand. However there are some common patterns to be aware of.
A lot of chikan-ery happens on trains. Many city-dwellers rely on public transportation and it can get very crowded. It can be too tempting a situation for twisted folks: smashed up against strangers they can safely assume they will never meet again. Three common crimes you hear about are groping, taking photos up women's skirts, and cutting, damaging or otherwise forcefully removing women's clothing. Campaigns against chikan are happening more frequently in recent years, resulting in things like "women only" cars on certain lines during peak use times, and advice that men keep their hands visible and above their heads (i.e., hanging onto the ceiling straps) as much as possible when the train is crowded. Being wrongly accused of chikan crimes happens and it can ruin a man's career and social life.
Other kinds of harassment that happen outside public transportation includes stealing underwear from clotheslines (most Japanese don't own dryers so they hang laundry outside to dry) and collecting and pouring bodily fluids on women (for some reason it's usually pee). The sad thing is it happens not only to grown women but to school-age children as well.
The one time I had the misfortune of running into a chikan was not on a train, but on my bicycle, on a well-lit and well-traveled street I used every day. The experience was terrifying and disgusting but I learned some valuable things I think:
1. It will feel like your fault
Chikan are very good at twisting situations to make it feel like you walked into it consenting and of your own free will. I chose to talk to the guy instead of walking away, and I beat myself up for it for days afterwards, even though HE was the one who did the wrong thing!
2. Evil people prey on the senses and logic of decent people
Related to #1, this goes for any kind of scammer, really. They will often create a situation predicting and utilizing the behavior of a logical, decent person to realize their goal/cover their butts. The chikan I met purposely crashed into my bike while making it look like an accident and also faked injury. A decent person, if they hit someone, stops to apologize and see if the person is hurt, right? That was my mistake. On the train, it is common courtesy to be as quiet as possible. This social rule decent folks follow "I can't raise my voice here" keeps some women on the train from "making a scene" even when groped.
3. Chikan thrive in the zone of "that was awkward, what just happened?"
They love confusion and doing things subtly or slowly, or just enough and in such a way that it takes a long time for victims to realize something is not right. Often what they do is so "small" the victim decides it's not worth going to the police about, giving more chances for the chikan to get off without any consequences.
4. Panicked people don't always make the best choices
When I finally realized something was very wrong, I panicked. I sped home on my bike as fast as I could. After I locked myself in my room and cried for a few minutes, I called my boyfriend (now husband) and cried some more. My boyfriend suggested I go to the police, and before that moment, I hadn't even thought of the police. On my panicked flight home I had even passed two police boxes and one large police station.
You hear about the "fight or flight" response and mine was definitely "flight", but another common response is just to freeze up and not be able to react at all, until too late. It doesn't matter what you know, how educated you are, or how close you are to a police station when fear takes over.
5. The police are professionals and are on your side against criminals
They should have been my first resource (not my boyfriend) but unfortunately they didn't even cross my mind! When we did get to the police I was immediately whisked into a private office with two female officers to explain what happened. A female officer was by my side at all times, and they drove me home in a patrol car. They even asked me about Yuya, if I was truly comfortable having him there or not. In American pop culture the police are comical blunderers or evil stooges of secret totalitarian systems. In Japan too, especially in the expat community, there is so much dissatisfaction with the "J-police" as little cogs in a corrupt justice system, racist and discriminatory. One can find so many anecdotes like that, and I can't say they don't happen, but I did want to put one good anecdote about the Japanese police out there. In my experience they made me feel protected and listened to.
6. Petty criminals love the rifts between citizens and police, and they also love "oh well it happens to everyone" kind of dismissive thinking
The police explained they had gotten a few reports about this guy but that they assumed he was doing many more unreported crimes. He was good at creating just enough uncertainty in his victims about whether the crime was serious enough to go to the police or not that many chose not to report him. Some victims don't want to come to the police because they are understandably reluctant to explain in detail what happened (always more than once), or they buy the lie the chikan created and think it was their own fault, or they don't want any annoying paperwork and time out of their day at the police station, or they assume it's just a part of female life in a big city and brush it off. An officer told me these problems allow chikans to flourish and go without consequences for years and years sometimes, and thanked me for coming to them with the report.
7. It may change your life
After the incident, I avoided commuting by bicycle to work and took the bus instead for a while. Then when I did go back to riding my bike, I changed my route. I found myself noticing every human being in my view and analyzing them as to how much of a threat they appeared to be. Riding the train, I was acutely aware of each person around me: where and how they were situated, what they were doing, how they looked. All through the lenses of suspicion and fear. I resolved I would never talk to a stranger or stop my bicycle if I hit someone, ever again. It was an exhausting couple of weeks because I felt anxiety every time I left the house or my workplace. Time passed and life became normal again, but I still don't smile at or talk to strangers--especially male ones--as much as I used to before the incident. Perhaps that's unfortunate, perhaps it will keep me more safe...I do think it is good to look up from my smartphone when on the train and be aware of what's going on around me in a healthy way.
Chikan are kind of a funny breed of criminal, categorized and behaving slightly differently than back home, that law-abiding citizens (especially women) in Japan have to deal with. I hope in the event I have a brush with a chikan again, I'll remember the above things and react better than before, and justice will be served. Next time I hope, it will be the chikan's turn to learn a thing or two!