Trigger warning: sexual harassment
In preface to today’s guest post, a little background about chikan. Somewhere between 50-70% of young Japanese women experience chikan (“pervert,” often “groper”) on Japanese commuter trains in metropolitan areas (Burgess & Horii, p. 3). To combat this, some train lines have created women-only train cars in major cities to help prevent groping in crowded train cars by providing safe spaces for women. Additionally, Japan’s camera phones make a snapshot noise that cannot be turned off to help prevent upskirt shots (see Stevens, Hayashi). Finally, in order raise awareness of the chikan problem, train stations and train lines have posted warning signs about gropers: “Beware of chikan,” “Chikan is a crime,” and so on.
When Juliana first contacted me about her personal experience with chikan, I was a little surprised, because groping on Japanese public transit is so common that a lot of us expats treat it as just another part of living in Japan–maybe not being groped regularly, but to the point where you’re convinced it’s bound to happen sooner or later. I used to consider myself “lucky” that I went 4.5 years without ever being groped, especially when traveling in Tokyo during rush hour. How horrible to think of this as luck, when that’s how everyone ought to be treated–to travel without fear or threat of molestation.
In light of recent events in the US, with subway flashers and gropers being videotaped and shamed, and with new technology like Hollaback helping women document street harassment, why shouldn’t we be problematizing and fighting back against harassment and assault in our adopted countries, too? I realize that one of the barriers is language, that even if we can speak Japanese fluently, authority figures may be 1. less likely to listen to us because of prejudice against “foreigners” and 2. because of the attitude of sweeping sexism (especially directed at non-Japanese) under the rug and ignoring it.1
It’s not like our fellow expats or people from our home countries are exactly understanding. I might not have been groped in a train, but I have been harassed on the street and harassed by colleagues, and when you try to talk about this problem, reactions often are “If you don’t like it, then go back to your home country” or “I wish I were getting so much attention!” or “They just think [race/ethnicity] women are sexy” or “Boys will be boys!” or “It’s just a different culture” or “It’s not like you got raped.”
Living abroad or appearing non-Japanese is not an excuse for harassment or assault, nor does it give anyone carte blanche to our bodies–not the locals, not our coworkers, not our fellow expats. There is no excuse for harassing anyone, and we need to continue this dialogue. Plenty of local police departments have useful information for what to do if you are assaulted, but we need to focus on stopping assaults from happening.
We Need to Talk About This: Chikan
Juliana Buritica Alzate is a Colombian graduate student completing her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at International Christian University in Tokyo, where she has lived for three years. Her research topic is “Representations of the Body by Japanese and Colombian Women Writers.”
Whenever I get the chance to talk about my life in Japan, the good points and the bad points, I usually mention safety as a major gain. Maybe this is because I’m from Colombia, but Tokyo is a city that has always made me feel safe and welcome.
However, a couple of weeks ago, an unexpected and shocking event happened to me. This is a story I believe needs to be told as it happens more often than we think it does, and it deals with a topic that needs to be addressed and resolved.
It was May 1, 2013, a Wednesday. This term Wednesdays are my busiest days. After Japanese lessons, my part-time job at the writing support desk at the university library, and my Spanish teaching assistant job, I was ready to go back home from Musashisakai to Shimo-kitazawa. I had dinner plans with a friend from university, so we departed together.
We took the Chuo line, and the train stopped in Mitaka for about 15 minutes. I was standing up, chatting with my friend. Suddenly, I felt someone grab my right butt cheek. I was shocked, angry, and it was very hard to think clearly. I had heard several stories about chikan (“pervert”) in the crowded trains but it was the first time it actually happened to me, in spite of it being a rather empty train. As soon as I felt the hand I turned around to see who the perpetrator was, and, to my surprise, I saw a young boy laughing at me. He was not alone; there were about five more boys with him. They were also laughing.
I muttered “stupid boy” and “asshole” in English but it didn’t seem to mean anything to him; he ran outside the train car. Actually, I wish I could write that I yelled but I barely said those words. I couldn’t say what I was feeling because I was ashamed and shocked at the same time. Since the train was still waiting, and he had left the train, I stepped out of the train and this time I raised my voice and said in polite but stern Japanese, sonna koto shinai de—“Don’t do that!” He looked back at me, still smiling, and then he disappeared out of my sight. When I stepped back in the train, I looked at his school class mates who had remained in the car. They weren’t laughing anymore; they kept a straight face and ignored my presence. I didn’t dare to go near them. I also chose to ignore them even if their presence still made my body tremble with outrage.
I should have asked them about their names or their friend’s name or their school’s grade or any information that could have served me for a future complaint. Should’ve. Could’ve. Would’ve. But I didn’t. I had several afterthoughts about how I should have reacted. The truth is, it’s not supposed to be about my reaction because this situation shouldn’t have happened in the first place…but it did.
My body was shaking. I felt so bad. My friend didn’t notice what really happened, she just thought the boy had pushed me because he was in a rush. She even said I was quite harsh for calling him names and saying he shouldn’t do “that.” After I explained what really happened she was very supportive. She noticed that the children were wearing uniforms from a prestigious private elementary.2 It was around 4:00 pm so they were probably on their way back home from Nishi-kokubunji on the Chuo line. It is very hard to determine exactly how many and how old they were, due to my shock. But how he/they made me feel remains vividly in my memory, in my body.
I assume this kid wasn’t fully aware that he was indeed sexually molesting me, for him it was just a prank—the foreign, young woman was probably seen as an easy target. But for me, it was an unwanted sexual advance in a public place, against my wishes. No matter how subtle the contact was, it was unwelcome and it made me feel very uncomfortable, and this goes for every case of sexual harassment and molestation—if it is unwanted, unwished for, and makes feel people bad, it is a situation that needs to be corrected. In my case, the irony of the term “child molester” hit me.
I would also like to mention how different people reacted to my story. I was expecting more sympathy but many people just laughed and found it funny. I was the subject of a prank by a child. I—my body—was a source of enjoyment for boys. How silly, how funny. Don’t take it seriously, don’t take things too far.
I am not taking things too far. I am not overreacting. I am not exaggerating. It is very basic: I didn’t ask for it and my body is not out there for boys or men’s enjoyment without my consent. My story is just one among millions. Many people might think that molestation, gender violence, sexual assault and harassment, etc., are mainly about sex but what they fail to recognize is that it is about power. Stories related to gender violence often remain in the shadows; but not because women prefer to be silent but because society blames women—it makes us feel ashamed and guilty. There is nothing wrong with me; there is nothing wrong with women and men that have been disrespected, harassed, and assaulted.
The victims of harassment and assault are real people. So are the perpetrators. They coexist with us, in our families, groups of friends, work places and public places. Even a young Japanese boy going to a private elementary school can be one of them. So let’s go back to the beginning: how does society produce these people? We are all involved in gender violence. Remaining indifferent or silent in the face of abuse is a form of consent and complicity.
We need to speak out and care not only about ourselves but also about others. We need to be sympathetic with all victims of abuse. Moreover, we need an educational approach to spread an important lesson that will benefit us all: abusive behavior is unacceptable. Abusing others shouldn’t imply winning social status or bragging rights, but actually losing it. Touching anyone’s body without their consent is wrong. This lesson has to be part of our formal and informal education, and it must become a part of our institutions.
If you’d like to share your own story about experiencing or fighting back against harassment or sexism, email me at odorunara[at]gmail[dot]com. Also, if you are aware of any good research on this subject or apps like Hollaback for Japan, please send them my way!
1 Ed.: Of course, this happens in the US, too–discrimination against victims who are not citizens, who speak English as a second language, who are in homogamous relationships. It’s not just a Japan problem.
2 Ed.: Japanese schools, particularly junior high and high school, tend to have distinctive uniforms. If you are a local, especially a teacher, you often know to which school to report incidents (theft, groping, fights), but if you are not familiar with the uniforms (I never was in Kanazawa), it’s not always helpful. Also: pre-pubescent children can be quite perverse, speaking from my own experiences as a kid in the US and working with Japanese schoolchildren.
Adam Burgess and Mitsutoshi Horii. “Constructing Sexual Risk: ‘Chikan’, Collapsing Male Authority and the Emergence of Women-Only Train Carriages in Japan.” 2008.
Nobuyaki Hayashi. Nobiblog Returns. “Available only on Japanese iPhones.” 14 July 2008.
Tim Stevens. “Japanese iPhone Has Upskirt-Preventing Shutter Sounds.” Switched (now Huffpost Tech). 21 July 2008.
Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. “Defend Yourself Against Sex Crimes” Statistics Page for 2012. “Incidents of Chikan in 2012 in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.” 警視庁. 性犯罪から身を守る。都内における痴漢犯罪の発生状況(平成24年中）. Accessed 8 June 2013.
“Tokyo police launch weeklong anti-groping campaign on trains.” Japan Today. 15 Sept. 2009.