“All schoolgirls in Japan” victims of sexual assault on public transport
To, er, celebrate International Women’s Day, Al Jazeera ran this long and detailed story about sexual assault in Japan, claiming “every girl was a victim” but now more schoolgirls are speaking out about groping on public transportation.
Tamaka Ogawa was about 10 years old when she was sexually assaulted for the first time. It was a public holiday and she was on the subway. A man standing behind her pulled down the band of her culottes and underwear, touched her bare bottom, then pressed himself against her. She recalls feeling shocked and physically sickened. When she reached home, she repeatedly washed the spot where he had pressed himself against her, although she was conscious of not spending too long in the toilet, in case her family noticed that something was wrong.
Some years later, on her first day of senior high school, she was groped on the commute home. After that, the groping and sexual assaults — men would often stick their hands inside her underwear – became a regular occurrence as she made her way to or from school in her uniform. Each time, she would run away, unsure of what to do.
As a child Ogawa was confused by this all. Why were adults excited by her? Why were they trying to touch inside her underwear on the train?
Ogawa is today a founder of a small digital content production company but has written about this issue in Japan. She says that all her peers at high school were victims.
Not all people are happy about this, though. Activists have come up with solutions to the problem of train chikan such as badges that try to shame would-be gropers or posters in trains encouraging victims to confront their assaulters and report the crimes (there are no real statistics on groping because relatively few victims come forward). Another is the women-only carriages that are common at rush hour.
One former victim notes that she started wearing her school skirt shorter and was actually assaulted less frequently, which perhaps says something about the psychology of the gropers.
As the 2020 Olympics approaches, Tokyo and Japan don’t want this problem to tarnish the image of itself presented to the world, so expect to see more strategies launched by authorities albeit arguably as publicity stunts rather than effective means to tackle the heart of the problem.
However, activists say that groping is downplayed as a “nuisance” (meikaku) rather than a sexual crime — and not tackled as strongly as it should be in a culture where schoolgirls are commonly depicted as sexualized kawaii idols. (Incidentally, the Cabinet has only just approved plans to toughen rape laws in Japan, raising the maximum prison sentence for perpetrators from three years to five as well as expanding the scope of people who count as victims and no longer requiring a public complaint from the victim in order to prosecute.)
One key problem when it comes to talking about “groping” is that people have very different ideas about what that entails; the term itself fails to adequately describe the range of violations. The widely held assumption is that groping is non-consensual touching over clothing, something deemed a minor crime and punishable under Japan’s prefecture-level Anti-Nuisance Ordinance. Under the ordinance, the sentence is usually six months in jail or a 500,000 yen ($4,500) fine.
“I hear many girls telling me that they have experienced men’s hands under their skirt, and the groper’s fingers in their vagina,” [activist Yayoi] Matsunaga says. “It is rape.”
Men ejaculated on Ogawa’s friends. Often, she says, the perpetrators put their hands inside her underwear. Many times, the abuse involved being penetrated by men’s fingers.
Police officers usually decide whether more serious groping-related cases, where the violations include penetration, should be filed under Article 176 of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But just a tiny proportion of the total reported cases get filed under this article. Article 177, which pertains to rape, carries harsher penalties, but its legal definition is extremely narrow and only considers rape to be forced sexual intercourse.
One example of the uphill struggle activists and women face is that the media tends to over-report cases where men are falsely accused of groping.
Ultimately, the article concludes, the sexual assault is endemic and rooted in Japanese male ideals about dominating young women.
“One reason to do groping is to show their power to women and the younger girls,” [Professor Hiroko] Goto says. She believes offenders carefully target vulnerable-looking schoolgirls. She worries that as older schoolgirls begin to speak up, perpetrators will begin to target even younger girls.
Ogawa says many people believe men target schoolgirls because they are child molesters. “I think that’s true, too,” she says. But she also believes: “People want to target these kids and girls because they haven’t been touched; because no one has conquered them.”
Sociologist Kazue Muta agrees. Some men are aroused by schoolgirls because they “represent innocent and pure figures, to whom patriarchy should prohibit sexual access,” says Muta, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Osaka University, over email.
“However, the offenders are not always or necessarily sexually driven; rather, what drives them is the desire to control and dominate a target. The more she seems embarrassed, troubled, or perplexed, the [more the] offender would be satisfied, because it means he is controlling and dominating her. Schoolgirls are young and oftentimes docile and obedient to grown-up men,” Muta adds.