Monday, 12 May 2008


[NSFW links ahead - actual chikan sites restricted to Part 4]

One may argue that modern public transportation creates a particular public space all its own, wherein traditional notions of civility and personal space are forcibly erased, allowing a sort of twentieth-century deviance heretofore unimaginable.

As a criminology journal article entitled "Sex Crimes In The Subway" puts it:

"although neither exhibitionism nor genital rubbing (frottage) are confined to the subways, a quality peculiar to the physical setting of the subway makes it a preferred site for both of these types of sex offenders".

The pressed mob lets individuals within it lose their sense of proper socialization and responsibility; crushed together, the normal rules may appear not to apply, and amoral temptations flourish in this atypical environment.

Simply put, it is a frotteur's paradise.

The phenomenon of unwanted groping or sexual assault on public transit is not a new one, and not one limited to any particular place or culture; Dan Hoyt and Freddie Johnson, both out of New York City, are proof enough of that.

Still, as interesting as New York's rubbers or grinders may be, the particular form of groping known in Japan as chikan is particularly fascinating for many reasons, and there is a deep (indeed seemingly endless) pool of resources on the subject online should one choose to have a look.

Suffice it to say that I've had a look and this is some of what I've found.

Chikan [wiki] is a term originally denoting pervert, and later understood to refer specifically to groping on usually crowded subway trains; in addition, the word is properly a noun but can now be used as a verb as well. The female equivalent term would be chijo, or lewd woman.

Chikan are so well-known in Japan that they have become a stock manga character, and even inspired a hit song [video].


Japan has an extremely popular public transportation system, so much so in fact that oshiya (or 'pusher's) are required to cram people into each last little bit of available space onboard subway trains.

In this packed environment, tensions are already high. It is not natural or comfortable (in the physical or psychological sense) to be so constrained, and in such proximity to strangers for what are often lengthy periods of time. In such a situation, your personal space is invaded as it is. But when someone takes advantage of that enforced proximity to grope or molest, the ride to and from work can be a terrible experience, an ordeal to be endured.

What can one do? There are words and pictures available on how to protect oneself from chikans. Women have also organized workshops roleplaying likely situations. More recently, text display messages on a cellphone have been suggested as being helpful. There is of course also the route of danger signs (or, in the U.S., consciousness-raising campaigns). Placing video cameras on every subway car has been rejected as being too expensive. The conventional suggestion is to grab the offender's arm and raise it in the air, yelling "chikan" as you do so.

Perhaps the most innovative solution to the problem however has been the introduction of women-only public transit, whether by bus, train or subway. If the men are absent, the logic goes, so is the chance of being flashed or groped by one; for the duration of the ride at least, the fear is abated.


Japan has had railways since 1872 and subways since 1927. It may surprise you to learn that all the way back in 1912, even before the subways had started, there were women-only railcars known as hana-densha (or flower train).

By 1973, the women-only railcars ceased, and it was not until the 21st century dawned that the practice came back into effect - driven by the alarming failure of previous campaigns and increased police presence alone, and by statistics suggesting the problem affected two-thirds of the trains' female passengers and had increased triple-fold in the previous decade.

This measure has been introduced around the world over the last decade in places like Cairo, Moscow, Mexico City, Rio De Janeiro, and most recently Seoul.

In Tokyo, trailblazing efforts to solve what seemed a hopeless cause took the form of a throw-back then, women-only subway train cars, usually the first and last car on a train. The cars are identified by pink mats on the station platform.

The riders of these josei senyou sharyou (women-only railcars) seem happy with the arrangement, although some feminists take issue with segregation between the sexes being viewed as a solution to a sexist problem.

It may still be too early to really critique this new system; nonetheless, it is fair to say the reaction has thus far been mixed. Many women would like to see the program expanded and more such women-only cars made available. Many men treat such trains as being rather absurd and women on the general cars are now often inferred to be quite literally 'up for grabs'.


Overall however, as the culture at large transforms, the problem seems to be taken more seriously and chikan are beginning to be confronted and challenged by the public (and I'm not just talking about white male bloggers either).

Former rock star/TV personality Masashi Tashiro and former star economist Kazuhide 'Mirrorman' Uekusa, perhaps the two most high-profile individuals charged with such crimes in Japan, are excellent examples of the social cost such actions now extract there.

A price so very high in fact that it is now increasingly common to find oneself the victim of an expensive new con if one is riding a mixed-gender train car: a woman accuses you of being a chikan, of having assaulted her. This is often followed shortly thereafter by a second person coming forward who asserts that they saw the whole thing and are willing to testify to the veracity of the woman's claim. Of course there's no need to go to the police if a settlement can be reached, the woman explains...and in this sly manner salarymen are parting with vast sums to protect their reputation.

Though I haven't yet seen it myself, I would be remiss if I didn't mention last year's critically acclaimed film Soredemo boku wa yattenai (I just didn't do it!), directed by Masayuki Suo. The story of a young man who is falsely accused of being a chikan and his travails through the Japanese courts system, it conveys something of the fear and apprehension men are now sharing (if for entirely different reasons) with their female fellow passengers on the train.

The problem has become so bad now that some men are calling for their own male-only train cars so that they may ride without fear of false accusation; the stations plead the expense is too high or ignore the problem and hope it will disappear. Fearful male riders offer each other suggestions to avoid accusation and on what to do if accused; there is even a cottage industry selling portable subway straps so that men can advertise the fact that their hands are occupied hands, thank you very much.


And the men whose hands are roaming, what of them? What they have in common is obviously a desire to engage in frotteurism. As this used to be known as frottage, gropers will often speak of needing to frot or going frotting or the like (frot and frotting are also popular terms in the gay community, where the action is consensual and often seen as an alternative to anal sex).

The anonymity of the internet allows such men the freedom to speak openly about their drives and thus we are granted, should we choose, a rare entry into their minds and motivations.

Not surprisingly, chikan use the internet for their own ends as well, everything from chat boards and hall of fames to private yahoo groups and sites selling chikan-based pornography. Stories of particularly great gropes are common, as are claims that their actions were thankfully - depending on the man's level of depravity - enjoyed or rejected. It is worthy of note that the largest gropers board I found also had a section dedicated to helping users stop groping; pretty unusual for an enthusiast's site, and very telling of the often-conflicted state of mind of the practising pervert.

Salaryman Shigeru Oohori (a pseudonym) feels no shame however; instead, he took things up a notch back in 1999 and suggested his fellow chikan actually get together to meet and exchange ideas, leading to the creation of the Chikan Tomo-no-Kai (or Gropers’ Brotherhood).

"Groping was once a solitary activity, but now thanks to the Internet it’s become easy to link up with people who share the same kind of sexual interests", he is quoted as saying. The Brotherhood meets once a month, counsels and encourages each other, and even has belts for varying degrees of groping (5th dan black belt = 100 gropes a month).

Certainly one of the stranger realities of this whole subject is the existence of clubs - or train cafes - which cater specifically to the tastes of chikans, creating detailed mock-ups of train interiors and staffing them with women to grope. The mind boggles.


In compiling this big batch o' links, it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that an awful lot of the stuff I was finding online related to this issue - whether "hard news" or blog, chat group or social comment - had a strong undercurrent of xenophobia if not outright racism to it.

The degree to which this was so was surprising to me and it brings up an important issue: how different are media around these events than the events themselves? Events effect media in the obvious sense that news (and new products) obstentiously comprise media's reason for existence - but how does media effect events? Does the very act of media's focusing on chikan possibly drive some people into that lifestyle? Transgression needs expression, and the media have certainly provided that, with a heaping side order of titillation.

Can we really blame the media though? The fact is that sex is fascinating and breaking the rules is fascinating, and yes, breaking the sex rules is quite fascinating indeed. Even Nobel Laureate author Kenzaburo Oe employed chikan themes in his novella "J" (or "Homo Sexualis") - about a rebellious young man who takes up with chikans, groping young women together on the trains. As one reviewer puts it, "Oe uses rather extreme situations to highlight the difficulty or even impossibility of reconciling personal expression and social expectations".

I will close finally with another insightful write-up on the same work, a comment I found thought-provoking:

"J can be read as an allegory about freedom, and about man — Everyman — in society. But it lends itself to a more personal reading, too. "I write with my genitals," Oe once said in an interview, in response to critics who had complained about his sexual explicitness. He now regards that statement as thoughtless, superficial, and immature — nothing but a young man's expression of anger — yet it is worth examining in this context. In the story, the sexual impulse can be seen as standing for a writer's creative urge — exhilarating in itself, and utterly irresponsible. But its author understands that the urge to self-expression, if not curbed by conscience, is a fundamentally antisocial thing...In J, Kenzaburo Oe was — at least on some level — examining questions about the selfishness of the creative artist..."

1 comment: said...

Thank you, Pius, for your interesting article on chikan. I would like to make three brief comments:(1) the reason chikan appears to be more common in Japan may be because Japanese women tend not to speak up, either because:(a)Japanese women are more socially repressed than Western women and therefore less assertive, less likely to make a fuss. This is the explanation I have encountered on the Internet; (b)they are more sexually liberated and therefore don't mind all that much; or (c) in the minds of most Japanese men and women, chikan is not such an explosive issue as it would be in Western minds; to their mind it is no worse (and no better) than to be stuck in a traffic jam, be ticked off by their boss, or having to deal with a tired and obstinate child. To them chikan can be frustrating, humiliating or irritating, but it is not such a big deal - it is, they might say, part of life. - As against argument(c), one could argue that if chikan were no big deal to Japanese women, chikan males would not practice their 'trade' because the thrill of transgression would simply not be there. -
Where does this argument lead? I wonder whether it is possible to argue that male chikans in Japan derive their thrill - not because the practice of chikan is 'normal' or 'common' but because it is neither and that despite the relative lack of overt/vocal signs of outrage by Japanese women when molested, they know their behaviour has a covert effect and in a few cases two covert effects: it offends and yet - in 'some' cases - it excites; and that it is this duality in a few women's response that the chikan finds 'addictive': the woman's ambivalence - an ambivalence which is 'shaped' or facilitated culturally. Western women are less likely to respond with ambivalence and they are therefore much more likely to ensure that the offender gets into trouble for his act.

One could even speculate that to the extent that some Japanese women indicate ambivalence reflect the culture in which they, and the perpetrators, live: a cultural ambivalence to this particular kind of behaviour.

I was thinking of the cultural meaning of ambivalence in the context of rope binding in Japan where. If it is a woman who is being bound, apparently she is expected (by the audience) to show subtle signs of ambivalence - a tension between the physical pain, the humiliation she may feel, and (possible) sexual arousal. The 'synthesis' derived from these contradictory elements is supposed to lead to a state of mind called 'shuuchinawa'.The audience looks for this - in fact, it could be argued that this is what makes rope work interesting to Japanese audiences. Anyway, the point is that the woman is supposed to show signs of ambivalence. Maybe this is an important - albeit unstated - part of Japan's culture, an aspect that is, in a sense, replicated in Japan's crowded public transport system.

Just a thought. Sorry about the length of that thought...