Japan’s trains have become the new front in battle of the sexes

Female-only carriages were introduced to protect women from sexual harassment but more men are ignoring this stipulation, claiming it is discriminatory and unfair

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 8:44pm

Train companies in Japan introduced the first dedicated women-only carriages nearly 20 years ago, but a measure designed to protect female passengers from predatory chikan – the Japanese term for gropers – has become a new front in the battle of the sexes.

More men are openly defying the polite signs on platforms and in carriage windows that designate women-only carriages, claiming the practice is discriminatory and unfair because they have to pay the same fares for more crowded mixed carriages.

They have begun ignoring the requests, which are not legally enforceable but rely on male passengers’ good manners, bringing male and female passengers into open conflict.

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The Mainichi newspaper reported recently on a case in February in which station staff at Nezu Station, on Tokyo’s Chiyoda train line, were called to an incident in which three men were engaged in a blazing row with a group of women on the platform during the morning rush hour. 

The men asserted that they had the right to use the women-only carriage because men were merely requested not to use the car. The women disagreed and it took 15 minutes before tempers could be calmed.

Other train operators have reported similar incidents, with police being called to intervene in a disturbance at Katsura Station in Kyoto earlier this year.

People are still aware that there is code of conduct, they are more willing to ignore it now
Makoto Watanabe, Hokkaido Bunkyo University

The issue is a “difficult” one, admitted Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, because the men are technically not in the wrong, yet women-only carriages were introduced specifically to protect women from the gropers – almost all of whom are male and who are a plague on many lines during the notoriously congested rush hour.

“It is clear that something needs to be done to protect women from chikan so they can feel safe when they take a train and until recently these women-only carriages – suggested rather than mandated – were enough,” he said.

“But Japanese society has changed in a short time. A request that was based on an ethical concern was sufficient in the past because people knew there was an unwritten code of conduct in society and they respected that code. And while people are still aware that there is code of conduct, they are more willing to ignore it now.

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“I think this is just one more example of values that were once shared throughout our society are eroding away and being lost.

“I think Japanese people are becoming a lot more focused on themselves and a lot less caring and thoughtful towards those around them. And I think that has accelerated dramatically in the last 20 years or so.

“Japan used to be known as a nation and a society of shared values, security and respectful behaviour towards others, but I wonder if we will look back in 20 years’ time and ask ourselves where that society went.”