Friday, February 27, 2009

Getting caught in the chicks' train carriage

No penises allowed

It was about 9 o'clock at Shibuya station, one of the busiest. I was tired, happy to find a seat, and mildly surprised that there seemed to be so many women in the carriage.Then a Japanese woman, swift and oddly confident, comes up to me and says something rapidly in Japanese. Not catching it, I reply 'Sumimasen?'. She switches instantly to English and tells me that I am in a women-only carriage. I stare around, thinking that accounts for why everything is pink. I thank her and get off the carriage.

I felt sheepish but also grateful to the woman, not only for telling me (50 other women had ignored me) but because she had tried Japanese first; she gave me the courtesy of not assuming I couldn't understand her.

Part of me wanted to object to being thrown out of my seat; but I don't have the right; the Japanese have made the decision to have women-only train carriages and a public objection by me would make the issue a Japanese versus gaijin issue, when it isn't; it is a gender issue.

But I do think it is a bad idea. It has been put into place to combat the problem of endemic sexual harrassement on the trains; or, to be more specific, the problem of chikan, the train groper. These guys take advantage of packed trains by groping girls when the trains are completely packed, to the point where nobody can move. There are even cases of high school girls turning up to school with cum stains on their skirts. Distasteful, I know.

I myself saw an incident (or saw the resulting fracas) with a chikan. I was coming into Shinjuku, rush hour, one of the busiest stations in the world, when suddenly I heard a tremendous shouting from the other end of the carriage. One guy was yelling for all he was worth. Another man's voice, repeating over and over again: sumimasen, gomenasai, sumimasen, gomenasai. Then the train pulled up to the platform, people flooded out of the carriage, and I saw what was happening. The apologising man, head bent in shame, was trying to get away, pulling hard, while his arm was being held by the other man, a young man, who would not let him go. A young woman was standing nearby, presumably the young man's girlfriend. The man holding the guy's arm stood in the doorway of the train, which meant that the doors couldn't close, which meant the train couldn't leave, which meant that within 30 seconds the platform was swarming with staff. When about a dozen station staff had turned up, the guilty guy had appeared to accept his fate and stood silently, head bowed, on the platform, while the young man talked rapidly to a station officer. All the while the girl stood by, expressionless, saying nothing. She was a pretty girl, short skirt and all that, and I would have been tempted to put my hand on her arse myself... if she had been my girlfriend or we were dating or soemething weird like that...

I often wondered what happened to the chikan guy. Did he go to jail, get fined, or what?

But what stuck with me most about the incident is what the girl did. Nothing. Zilch. I knew that if her boyfriend had not happened to be there, she would have just put up with being felt up on the train, as they usually do. While that chikan was caught, the whole incident was hardly empowering for women.

Which is part of the problem of women-only carriages. It perpetuates the perception that women are helpless and cannot deal with their own problems, or that they are incapable of protecting themselves, or, just as bad, that they should not be expected to make an effort to protect themselves.

It's a defeatist attitude, and one that seems to me to be an admission of failure. Why should women need to be segregated in order to feel safe? It is like dealing with the Arab-Israeli problem by building a concrete security wall to separate the two communities. Walls are not the answer. Shouldn't they be targeting the gropers? Or shouldn't women be putting up more of a fight?

Would Western women?

I also find it insulting to me as a man. It tells me that I cannot be trusted. That women need protection from me. It reminds of the unease I felt, as a young and earnest university student, when during a safety-on-campus meeting I was told that at nighttime, if I see a woman walking towards me on my side of the street, then I should cross over to the other side of the street. I had gone to the meeting wanting to help, only to find that I was part of the problem. I felt strongly then, and still do, that perpetuating victimhood does not help.

Fear is not the answer.

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