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Sexual Harassment? Yes, Please.

June 10, 2008

One of my students sent me this from her mobile phone a couple of weeks ago.  The caption says, “Chikan Akan”, which is a catchy rhyming way of saying “No Groping” in the local dialect, plastered over the image of a sleazy-looking “salaryman”. My students found it on a train in Osaka and had a good laugh about for a couple of months.

Japan’s working life – real working life, not the half-baked, dead-end, cereal box novelty job people like me are doing – is Hell. People give their all to their company, to try and advance through the ranks, make more money, get more prestige, and in industries more open to public scrutiny – like teaching – try to avoid simply looking bad, by appearing to slack off, or anything like that. People often go to work at 7 or 8, and stay way past the time they should be home. On the train at 10 or 11pm at night, you often see people (usually men) passed out sleeping on the way home, to catch a few hours rest before getting up and doing it all again. The idea of a weekend is pretty foreign to alot of them as well. People have literally died from over-work, and their bodies have been found next to a cold cup of coffee in their cubicle the next day. They’ve even made a trendy new name for it – karoshi. Many of those who don’t pass away at the office decide to make a more dramatic go of it by throwing themselves in front of a train. This has become such a problem that many men who do this now deliberately try to make their bodies unidentifiable, since if the train company can find out who it is, they can sue the family of the deceased for expenses caused by the ensuing delay.

Not surprisingly, there’s alot of stress around. And alot of people going to and from work at the same time means the trains are crammed full, like tins of little Japanese sardines. In Tokyo, they actually employ people to walk around the platforms at peak hours wearing tidy little gloves, whose job it is to literally push people into the trains far enough to allow the door to shut until it reaches the next stop.

Yep, people are stressed, And cramped. And miserable. And maybe, just maybe, alot of the men are feeling incredibly powerless. And that might be one of the reasons why Japan has a slightly weird fetish – groping on trains. With all those people crammed together, and with so many sad men, any women who are crammed in there as well probably feel pretty uncomfortable. It’s a known fetish for guys to wriggle their hand around into a position where they can cop a bit of a fondle. The girl, being of typical Japanese submissiveness, will just stay quiet rather than make a scene. Even if she were to say something, in the more extreme circumstances she can’t even turn around to see who it is, or distinguish whose hand it is from the throng of faces around her.

Happily, this is mostly a thing of the past. Japan started taking action against it. Trains often have women-only carraiges now. The rail companies raised awareness, and started campaigns to encourage women to speak out if something like that happened. Women are encouraged to grab the man’s wrist, raise it high, and shout, “Chikan!”, to let everyone know what’s happened. Whether or not that has ever happened is a mystery. I’ve never seen it. But then, maybe it’s not so common these days as it used to be. Women are getting more assertive, too, as the Western influence seeps in. Damn foreigners (as an aside, I’ve been told that that’s why many Japanese men are turning to Filipino women, as they still have the subservient attitude that many Japanese women are starting to turn away from).

For anyone lamenting the fate of the over-stressed salaryman who has been denied his fix of stress-relieving felsh-groping, you’re not alone. Apparently a fair number of people thought it was a crime to deprive the men of their buzz, and so the Tokyo Train Cafe was opened! Here, paying “passengers” can board the “train”, along with women. The “train” rocks and shunts along the “track”, stopping at various “stops”, before reaching the end of the line. However, on this train, Chikan is A-OK. And if you really fancy your chances with the girl you’ve been feeling up, you can stop and ask her for a coffee and a chat after the ride.

This poster is part of the campaign against Chikan. It is Akan, apparently, which is fair enough. However, some of my students gave me a bit of a different spin on it today. One 15 year old girl came up to tell me that she was groped by a guy on the train. Not a full-on, frothing-at-the-mouth, clenching-fist zombie-style groping, but a gentle sort of nudging and rubbing with the elbow, against her chest. I was a little bit shocked, and asked what she did, but before she could answer, her friends suddenly burst into ridicule. Apparently her chest isn’t big enough for a guy to want to grope it. She shouted back at them that it did happen, and that her chest was plenty big enough, and she was so totally getting guys groping her on the train. But the weird thing about the whole exchange, I thought, was that the harassed girl seemed really proud, and the other girls jealous! She turned to me all smiles and confirmed, yes, she really was groped. And adjusted her posture, just a little. It’s like it’s a coming-of-age ritual, or something. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the girls on the train on the way home that night all went and stood a little too close to some businessmen so that they, too, could feel like real women.

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