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Groping cases have declined from 3,440 arrests nationwide in 2014 to 1,920 in 2020. But numbers are likely to rise as commuters and crowds return. Photo: Kyodo

Japan hopes anti-groping Digi Police app will deter return of train molesters as crowds back after lifting of Covid-19 restrictions

  • Cases have declined from 3,440 arrests nationwide in 2014 to 1,920 in 2020, likely as the Covid-19 pandemic kept people at home
  • Groping is likely to remain a major problem, as perpetrators become more organised to feed their ‘addiction’ to groping, says professor
Tokyo’s streets and transport system are filling up again as Japan slowly embraces a post-pandemic norm, with workers returning to offices and students back in the classroom. But the resurgence of crowds on the commuter network has also meant the return of chikan, train gropers who typically target females.

In a new attempt to combat this problem, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department on June 1 launched the Chikan Eradication Campaign in collaboration with train operators in and around Tokyo.

This involves a stronger police presence to deter gropers, a poster campaign instructing victims how they should respond to an attack and the promotion of the Digi Police app.

First released in 2016, the app has been downloaded more than 470,000 times.

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But Japanese women are typically reluctant to report themselves as a victim of a chikan. One recent report suggested that just 10 per cent of women report an attack, mostly because they are embarrassed.

Police statistics showed that the number of groping cases has fallen in recent years, down from a high of around 3,440 arrests nationwide in 2014 to 1,920 arrests in 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available. Such arrests are made under Japan’s Anti-Public Nuisance Ordinance.

An uphill battle

Critics point out that the sharp decline in 2020 is almost certainly partly due to low ridership numbers on public transport due to the pandemic, and fear that the next set of statistics might show a rebound in cases. They also caution that the problem is effectively impossible to eradicate.

“Basically, it is a very difficult problem to stop,” said Shinichi Ishizuka, a law professor and director of the Criminology Research Centre at Kyoto’s Ryukoku University.

“There have been plenty of other efforts over the last 20 years or so and yes, there has been a decline in the number of cases, but it’s not close to getting to zero and I don’t think it ever will,” he said.

“These people are very organised and they consider molesting women to be a ‘sport’ or their ‘hobby’,” Ishizuka said. “Things have got better, certainly from 20 years ago when the authorities first set out to tackle the problem, but there is still such a long way to go.

For many of these men, touching these women and exerting power over them is a kind of addiction
Shinichi Ishizuka, director of Ryukoku University’s Criminology Research Centre

“For many of these men, touching these women and exerting power over them is a kind of addiction,” he said. “I believe it’s something that begins in the formative years of these people, when they are in their teens, and they see the crowded trains in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka to be their opportunity.”

Emi Izawa, a 19-year-old student at a university in Tokyo said she has never been touched by a stranger on a train – although it happened to a friend when she was at high school. And she said she would have no hesitation in giving a groper a piece of her mind.

“Japanese women are shy about admitting they have been touched, so they keep quiet because they are embarrassed or they sometimes say they were not sure who it was or whether it was an accident,” she said. “But I think that the chikan know that and they are hoping the woman does not speak out.

“But after what happened to my friend – she was really upset – I know what I would do,” she said. “I would turn to face them and shout as loud as I could, then I would report it to the train staff and get them to call the police.”

She is baffled at the gratification that a man apparently gets from interfering with a complete stranger in a public place.

“I have heard that it’s a popular scenario in adult movies in Japan, so perhaps they are playing out those fantasies so they can feel special or powerful over women,” she said. “But when I talk to my friends, they say they would not put up with it either.”

Perpetrators often see a window of opportunity on the crowded trains of Osaka and Tokyo. Photo: AP

How technology helps

While the Digi Police app could be a deterrent to gropers, Izawa says she is dubious.

“If a woman is too embarrassed to speak up by themselves when they’re being touched, they are also likely to be reluctant to draw attention to themselves by pressing a button and accusing someone of molesting them,” she said. “The best way of solving this situation is for women not to be afraid to speak out.”

The app, first released in 2016, has been downloaded more than 470,000 times and has two primary reactions to an attack.

It flashes a message on a user’s screen that says, “A groping incident is occurring here. Please help me” and can be shown to other passengers to elicit their support.

If that does not work, the audio function of the app will verbalise “Please stop”.

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Professor Ishizuka pointed out that in addition to the latest police initiative, tech start-up RadarLab in 2019 introduced the Radar-Z app.

Radar-Z allowed users to share information on incidents and had a function that let someone under attack push a button to call for help from other passengers.

Other groping prevention groups have issued stickers or badges, with text like “Molesting is a crime”, for children to wear.

The police will also deploy plain-clothes female officers on trains and step up monitoring online chat rooms where perpetrators are known to exchange information on the “best” train lines to molest females, the stations where many female students board trains and the busiest times of the day.