The following article describes the early activism of the Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault in the 1990s to combat the problem of sex pests on public transport. The group eventually achieved success in forcing train companies to post warnings that the behaviour was a crime. The women mentioned in the article below are still active today in Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault, and collaborate with our group to combat prostitution and pornography in Japan.
Translated by Caroline Norma from Japanese article at https://www.bengo4.com/c_18/n_10390/
‘Think of the poor guy if you report him for being a chikan sex pest!’: What was common sense in Japan thirty years ago is no longer the case today, thanks to work by women
Everyone these days has seen the posters around Japanese train stations declaring that chikan molestation is a crime, but there was a time when calling out these men wasn’t possible.
Train companies used to refuse to post anti-sex pest warning posters on the excuse it would look like they were accusing commuters of being sex offenders. ‘They were worried about their corporate reputations,’ say two members of the Japanese feminist group Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault launched in 1989. In the face of corporate inaction, these women, Hiroko Akasaka (now aged 57) and Yumiko Sutou (now aged 55), in 1993 carried out Japan’s first-ever survey of female commuters into transport-based sex pest offending, popularly known as ‘groping’, or chikan in Japanese. The survey revealed countless voices of women distressed and outraged by the crime.
The survey results forced train companies, in 1995, to display anti-sex pest warning posters in stations and train carriages declaring chikan a crime, which was a radical message for the time. Osaka prefectural police also declared seasons of crack-down on the crime. (by Deguchi Aya)
An incident occurred one evening in November 1988 on the Osaka city government-run Midosuji commuter line that attracted nationwide attention. A 20-year-old woman confronted two men who were sexually harassing another woman on her train, and they turned on her. They bundled her out of the carriage and dragged her to a building site and raped her. The two men were imprisoned for 3.5 years for the crime.
In response to news of this crime, the following year, in December 1989, 20 women living in the Osaka region of ages 20 to 60 founded Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault. The group worked to force Osaka’s transport bureau and private-run train companies to strengthen anti-chikan measures.
But the response was muted. Train companies limited their new carriage announcements to messages warning against ‘nuisance behaviour’ on the excuse they didn’t want to accuse their customers of being sex pests. Group members were even told by one train company male employee, ‘chikan guys are our customers, too’.
Eventually, though, Osaka prefectural police teamed up with the Osaka-region train industry association to produce posters warning against chikan sex pests, even if the posters weren’t ideal. The posters featured a photograph (below) of a young woman with her hands pressed together in a prayer-like way alongside the text, ‘Thanks for your bravery. Please speak up if you become a victim of nuisance behaviour. We rely on your courage, and the bravery of bystanders.’
The posters downgraded sex pest chikan offending to ‘nuisance behaviour’, and put the onus onto victims to seek help. These days, of course, it is empirically understood that victims can freeze in fright, even in situations where escape is possible. So the posters missed their mark by calling on victims to speak up and take responsibility for their own safety.
Various reasons were given for why sex pest chikan offenders couldn’t be explicitly named in the train warning posters. In a Mainichi newspaper article on 8 May 1989, an Osaka city government transport bureau spokesperson is quoted as saying, ‘If we bluntly used that terminology we’d bring down the reputation of the train service by giving people the message there’s likely to be sex pests amongst them in the carriages’. A Hankyu Railway advertising department spokesperson is further quoted with the excuse that, ‘Explicitly referring to sex pests would make all our male customers feel like they’re being accused of the crime’.
But it wasn’t just men of the era who were obstructive. Akasaka remembers women in her workplace at the time saying how sorry they felt for guys arrested for train groping. They were worried about problems these men faced when their families and employers found out. Their loss of social position was of greatest concern.
Japanese women of that generation—in their 40s and 50s in the 1990s—worried more about what men stood to lose than about their female victims. ‘Even women went along with the traditional tendency to downplay sex offending. They would say things like, “women shouldn’t make such a fuss over a man touching them”,’ Akamatsu recalls.
Most people saw sex pest offending on public transport as a trifling matter that didn’t warrant any big reaction. Sutou, too, recalls that, ‘neither the city transport authorities nor the privately run railway companies thought they had any corporate responsibility to enact policies against sex pest chikan offending as a matter of sexual violence and human rights violation’.
But, even in this climate of denial, women’s voices began to be heard.
In October 1989, Kunijima High School in Osaka released results of a survey that found one third of female students encountered sex pest chikan during their daily commutes. Newspapers began printing letters from readers asking for something to be done about the problem on trains, and for train companies to consider implementing women-only carriages.
But, even after the November 1988 Midosuji line rape incident, train-based sex pest offending against women continued. So, in 1993, Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault joined forces with a labour union called Paapuru to launch a ‘Stop commuter sex pest chikan’ campaign. Surveys were sent to seven train companies asking about their policies against the problem, and group members followed up with meeting appointments to discuss their answers.
The group also wanted to compile the voices of victims, and this led to a survey of commuters. Over the four months between November 1993 and February 1994, group members handed out surveys to women in busy Osaka changeover stations like Yodoyabashi and Kyobashi during rush-hour. Sometimes they were approached by women wanting a copy of the survey who’d heard what it was about.
In addition to distributing the survey at train stations, group members also got it inserted into newspapers delivered free to office buildings and handed out by students on university campuses. In total, these efforts saw around 12,000 surveys put into circulation. Of course, the internet wasn’t around in those days, so the surveys had to be distributed together with post-paid envelopes.
The survey returned 2260 responses from women in their teens to women in their 70s and beyond. Of these, 71.1 per cent were victims of commuter sex offending. The greatest proportion—57.1 per cent—had been victimised between two and five times, and, 13.6 percent had been victimised between six and ten times, and another 9.2 per cent had been victimised eleven times or more. Respondents who had experienced one incident of assault numbered 20.1 per cent.
Most respondents—50.3 per cent—experienced the crime during morning commutes between the hours of seven and nine. The night-time rush between five o’clock and nine saw 24.9 per cent of respondents encounter the crime.
In response to the question, ‘how did you feel when it happened?’, respondents answered ‘angry’ at a rate of 44.7 per cent, followed by ‘shocked’ (23.1%), ‘distressed’ (14.3%), ‘scared’ (13.1%) and ‘embarrassed’ (4.8%).
In response to the question, ‘do you take measures against the crime?’, respondents answered that they carried a safety pin, which is the same approach being talked about now, more than twenty years later, as reported on social media. Akasaka notes of this situation that, ‘women think the same way now that they did back then. Things were different back then only in the fact women chatted about the problem face-to-face among friends rather than on social media’.
Written responses to open-ended survey questions overflowed with women’s anger and anxiety about transport-based sex pests. A white-collar woman worker in her thirties wrote that being molested on public transport meant she emotionally struggled through the rest of the day, and another self-employed woman in her 40s wrote that she would ‘never forget that feeling of humiliation’. A teenage student described feeling ‘shocked and beset with anger and sadness’ at the fact she had been ‘ignored as a human being and used as a tool with no individual personality’. Another teenager student responded that the experience produced feelings beyond discomfort to ones of fear.
In March 1995 group members distributed a report on the survey to train companies and the transport section of Osaka Prefectural Police under the title, ‘We want to ride on trains free of chikan sex pests!’. In response, the Paapuru labour union office received a phone call from Osaka Police.
‘We’ve read your report on train sex pests. Our transport section chief is keen to draw up posters with the explicit message that it’s a crime’.
So it ended up that posters in Osaka train stations against public transport sex pest chikan offences changed from warnings against ‘nuisance behaviour’ to warnings that the behaviour was criminal, and that offenders would be prosecuted under the provisions of Nuisance Prevention Ordinance. Osaka prefectural police distributed the posters to train companies, and announced a campaign to crack down on the crime to coincide with the initial display of the posters in train stations and carriages.
We might wonder why, before then, instead of declaring ‘chikan is a crime’ and of warning against chikan sex pests, they had warned women by saying ‘be careful about chikan’.
Akasaka thinks the crime was downplayed for so long because women were all individuals experiencing isolated incidents, and hadn’t developed a collective voice as victims.
‘Men’s thinking at the time was that sexual molestation was a compliment to women for having their femininity recognised, or that women attracted harassment for being sexually attractive. Many women at the time didn’t realized that other women also felt disgusted. They couldn’t speak up because they thought they’d be blamed’, she suggests.
Speaking up about our own victimization of chikan often invited further victimisation. Sutou reflects that, back in those days in Japan, ‘it was more common that women were told their experiences were nothing to be worried about, or that reporting offenders was unfair on poor men, rather than reactions of sympathy or solidarity to take action’.
Public opinion began to change as a result of the survey, and efforts to involve Osaka police and the train companies. That was twenty years ago. I asked Akasaka and Sutou whether social attitudes towards public transport sex pest chikan were now changed.
‘Disclosures of public transport sex pest chikan on social media attract sympathetic replies. Women now realise they’re not alone in experiencing the crime, and so it’s become easier for them to speak out. In the past it wasn’t acceptable for victims to speak out or express anger. But these days
even victims realise it’s a human rights violation.’
But, on the other hand, Sutou notes that ‘while it’s become easier to speak out publicly about the crime, victims experiencing the crime within train carriages still, as before, find themselves unable to stop the crime.’
Women are still being molested on Japanese public transport. Most victims, just like three decades ago, feel angry and distressed at these offences. The victims of the past who had managed finally attract public attention to their experiences by submitting letters to newspapers are now the internet users who talk about their experiences on social media. So their online posts about their own private experiences immediately attract the shared anger of other victims. This connection between women through the internet has prompted the recent #MeToo movements online.
Many women wrote lots of comments to the open-ended questions not just in the space to answer the questions but also in the margins of the questionnaire surveys about chikan. Surveys that were returned with written comments numbered as many as 500. Activists used these comments to illustrate their report with examples.
‘We realised the comments compiled in the survey report were so important. They represented the
raw actual voices and inner-thoughts of victims that hadn’t before been brought to light, let alone afforded an opportunity to be heard.
Across the 105-page report, we quoted the responses we had received from railway companies about the problem, such as ‘If only women would be strong and speak out more loudly’, and ‘Men are our customers too, so we can’t use language any stronger than “nuisance behaviour” in prevention posters’.
These kinds of excuses voiced by railway companies are hard to believe today, but they were entirely the norm in Japan back in the 1990s. Efforts to raise the voices of victims and keep them being heard caused this change. The activism of Osaka Women Against Sexual Assault shows us how powerful such efforts can be.