It’s no secret that the Japanese transportation grid is still, even in the recession years, one of the world’s best. Spotless subway trains glide up to sliding automatic doors set in plexiglass accident-prevention partitions. Liquid crystal displays accurately list arrival and departure times, the type of the train arriving (local line, express, or super-express) and the number of cars which comprise the oncoming train. Television monitors in the underground stations entertain bored patrons with a flurry of national news items and sports scores. And, despite the Roman legions of commuters who sometimes eject from a single 8-car train, human traffic at major transportation hubs is well-regulated and all evidence of postmodern tension and social aberration is deftly concealed. One could go so far as to say it’s the closest we will ever get to a perfect system of public transportation. Unless, of course, you are a victim of chikan.

  Loosely defined, chikan is a blanket term covering all forms of groping and unwanted physical advances in public. However, most occurrences of chikan take place on board a train. It is usually carried out with such blunt audacity that foreigners tend to look on either in a state of shock or with a schadenfreude­­­ sense of amusement. The typical encounter usually involves a nondescript salaryman, nose buried in a weekly comics magazine or newspaper which also shields his wayward eyes and makes it look as though he is rapt in thought while his free hand is probing the nearest available female commuter. In most cases, the other patrons sharing the train car make pains not to notice, and the victim is unnervingly pliant. While said victim may exhibit discomfort through facial expression or by simply bowing her head in embarrassment, there are few, or not enough, cases of the offender being reprimanded or smacked in the deceptively emotionless face. Eventual knowledge of this fact gave rise to a poster campaign throughout the Osaka area reading “chikan=akan” (akan is Osaka dialect for ‘no good’) with some mild warnings to perpetrators under the bold print. More unintentionally cynical, though, are the stickers placed on subway train doors which encourage victims, in the most condescending of terms, to yuuki o dasu (“be brave!”) and koe o dasu (“raise your voice!”) in such a situation.  Realizing that such kindergarten-level admonitions were ineffective, even if campaigned at a national level, police enforcement began taking on a slightly more active role in preventing the problem. At the same time, though, certain undisciplined members of the police force actually contributed to the problem. Some Osaka residents lovingly recount a story in which a police officer, who was caught committing chikan in full uniform, was dragged by a group of civilians to the nearest ‘police box’ and dumped there with severe reprimands. Perhaps coming to grips with the direness of the situation, the Japan Rail company (currently the most expansive railway in Japan, with 6 or 7 smaller competitors), posed the question “what would happen if we just separated the sexes entirely?”


    While the battle cry of “raise your voice!” was widely ignored on the actual trains, apparently it wasn’t on Japan Rail’s customer service switchboards, which processed thousands of complaints with regards to unwanted groping, and outraged demands that something be done.    So in mid-2002, a comprehensive questionnaire was mailed out by Japan Rail to urban commuters, proposing the idea of all-female cars on trains, which would run at rush periods and the later hours of the evening (JR service usually terminates at 00:30.). The response was (for a nation which tends to give the most polite and neutral replies possible on such questionnaires) overwhelming.  80% of the polled women supported the action, bolstered by a surprising 70% of the polled men. In little to no time at all, unmistakable fuschia warning mats vaporized on the boarding areas where commuters form lines for the trains, notifying the populace that this was the boarding area for an all-female car. Word spread quickly, and Japan Rail’s competitors- the underpopulated Keihan Line and the posh Hankyu Line- announced plans to quarantine the chikan outbreak with all-female cars of their own. Soon after, NHK (Nihon Housou Kaisha or Japan Broadcasting Company) ran a feature on their nightly news program showing symmetrical lines of young, professional women boarding the crowded new cars. Their faces were joyless and functional, but solemnity remains a feature of most rush hour subway commutes in the country.

  While such an experiment in social engineering seems novel -even radical- here in continental Europe, in reality the blueprints for such an experiment had been drawn long ago. Willful, uncontested gender segregation is visible in most other areas of modern Japanese society, making the select female-only trains much closer to being the last gender-exclusive institution than the first. On the educational level, there are far more primary schools, secondary schools, and universities maintaining a girls only/boys only enrollment than in the U.S. In terms of entertainment, every major comics vendor in Japan (and let’s not forget that some 50% of printed materials in Japan are in comic form!) has the men’s comic section cordoned off from the women’s comic section. This fact seems to be based not on the fear of women discovering men’s comics with pornographic content, but because each gender’s tastes are seen to be mutually incompatible. Of course, Japan does boast female artists who paint as bloodthirsty a picture as their male contemporaries, and male artists whose works focus on stereotypically feminine subject matter (e.g. romantic relationships), so that distinction may be unnecessary.

  Places of rest and relaxation seem to be gender-exclusive as well: you could book a room in a ‘capsule’ hotel for a month and probably never see a single female boarder. The same could almost be said of men entering French pastry shops (like the immensely popular Vie de France chain) or certain tea houses. One purakura (‘print clubs’ where young couples go to get customized, instantly developed photo stickers of themselves) near South Osaka’s bustling Tennoji station even has a placard outside reading “Dansei nomi guruppu wa KINSHI- or, men only groups are FORBIDDEN!” Pretending with a friend to be a pair of respected “Czech diplomats” out on the town, yours truly staged a mock protest to the owner of this establishment to test the reaction. Not only was the ban not lifted, but peals of delighted laughter and giggling erupted from some schoolgirls who had been eavesdropping from the nearby photo booths. Inter-gender communications in the political sector of Japan seem to be messier, especially with the recent resignation of foreign minister Makiko Tanaka. Commenting on her bursting into tears briefly after her resignation, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi shrugged “it’s just like a woman.” He was strangely silent when the embezzling Muneo Suzuki, upon leaving his government post for the less cozy confines of prison, also became teary-eyed. Koizumi, however, is quite tame when compared to black humorist and Tokyo mayor Ishihara, whose foot-in-mouth quips almost anticipate him appointing his horse as a consul. Among Ishihara’s many faux pas are claims that it is ‘evil’ for women to live past the age of menopause.

  So, all in all, the institution of a designated all-female train car is just an extension of a long-standing trend toward gender segregation in the modern era. Many are quite comfortable with this, others express concern that the all-female train cars simply raise the psychological stakes in the chikan game. It now allows the offender to use the convenient blame-shifting ploy that a woman now boarding a ‘mixed’ car, as opposed to a women’s car, is subtly advertising her desire to be harassed. In such cases it almost discourages women to be independent and encourages further mutual distrust. Carried to its extreme, the idea that women should not board trains frequented by men reduces the two genders to two different species. Gender segregation at Japanese hot springs and the aforementioned ‘capsule’ hotels is understandable, since these are more intimate spaces- but it’s difficult to think of anything less intimate than a subway train (although the trains sometimes become a popular extension of home for ‘morning toilette’ rituals, like tooth-brushing and make-up application.) If the all-female cars soar in popularity, which may well happen over the next few years, unquestionably there will be talk of all-female elevators. One of my students in Osaka’s Umeda business district- who will remain unnamed here as per her request- expressed a desire for this after being flashed on an elevator in one of the city’s most heavily trafficked office complexes. 

  Sadly, the realization that direct discussion of these issues might solve more problems than mere compartmentalization of humans is not yet Japan-wide conventional wisdom. Much of the trailblazing in this area has been done by expatriates in Japan: take for example former NYC resident and ‘sound activist’ Terre Thaemlitz, whose CD and DVD releases have long since dealt with gender-blurring issues, and who held a series of talks in Shibuya’s hip Uplink arts center in the thin disguise of Ei-kaiwa or English conversation lessons. Over a 3-month residency in this tiny loft space, “Terre-sensei” aimed at dismantling both Western and Eastern preconceptions about gender and its ultimate role in determining individuality. These talks took place almost a year before JR took the first steps towards making all-female train cars, but they still seem like a more viable alternative than flat-out polarization of the sexes. If nothing else, for the simple reason that these discussions stopped to ask “why?” more than just automatically accepting a decision (even an overwhelming majority decision) as the best course of action.

Thomas Bailey
Prague, 2003

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The His And Hers Subway:
Japan's Gender Segregation On Public Trains

note: this article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Altar magazine in New York.