Harassment: Could Japan’s Women-Only Carriages Work in London?

Japan’s crime rates are pretty low on the whole but one thing it has in abundance is train gropers. Sexual harassment on public transport got so bad in Tokyo that train operators introduced women-only carriages to give women the right kind of helping hand. With budget cuts taking police off our streets and transport harassment far from sorted, would London benefit from a similar scheme?

Trains and Chikan

Japan’s gropers are strangely infamous. They’re called chikan – a wonderful word Japanese word that’s written using symbols for “stupid” and “man”. It says everything about how perverts are viewed and who is to blame.

Victims of train gropers are encouraged to identify their assailants by yelling “Chikan!” and relying on other passengers – basically the men – to take charge before handing the situation over to station staff at the next stop.

http://www.womensequality.org.uk/leader_statement_geChikan are such a part of Japanese culture that they regularly make their way into films, TV, manga and anime. There are also warning posters around parks (left) and transport hubs. Their main groping ground has always been trains, especially packed commuter lines around the capital where their actions might be easily confused in the crush.


It works in Tokyo

Women-only carriages seemed the best solution. They arrived in Tokyo in 2000 and quickly spread across companies and lines. Most only operate in weekday peak hours, allowing women to seek safety with their own kind.

Companies weren’t keen at first because of fears about overcrowding in mixed carriages and the challenge of changing commuting habits. Overcrowding is still an issue but the roll-out was so successful that women-only carriages are now standard in Tokyo and have spread to other Japanese cities.

women-only carriagesThe women-only rule is voluntary and is upheld by station staff and passengers alike. Shame is a great influence in Japan, particularly for men, as people are expected to bring only fortune and favour to families and businesses. It’s considered shameful for a man to enter a woman-only carriage and he’d be beyond embarrassed as he stepped off red-faced at the next stop. This deep-rooted sense of shame is crucial to the scheme’s success.

Women love the carriages as they’re out of reach of chikan and can avoid the pungent aroma of sweaty, suited guys in summer. It isn’t just females that like the carriages. Young children and boys can also use them to avoid being crushed or even targeted themselves, and men say that they also feel more at ease as false accusations of groping do occur in packed trains. The only losers from the system are the gropers themselves.

Women-Only Carriages in Our Capital

http://www.womensequality.org.uk/leader_statement_geIntroducing these women-only carriages in London might sound like mere speculation but it’s more relevant than you’d think. They’ve been repeatedly raised as a way to tackle London’s own sexual harassment problem.

In 2014 Claire Perry, then Parliamentary Under Secretary for Transport, said she had looked into the possibility and Jeremy Corbyn sparked outrage the following year when he said he would consider them. So what’s the likelihood another society’s scheme could benefit ours?

The Blame Game

The biggest argument against women-only carriages is the onus placed on women. It’s the same as telling women to not wear short skirts, get drunk or walk alone in certain areas. These suggestions make it the woman’s job to not be attacked ad mean that when a woman is harassed she can get the blame.

women-only carriagesThe fear with women-only carriages is that if a woman gets harassed on a mixed carriage the first question asked will be “Why didn’t you use the women-only ones?”. Campaigners against Corbyn’s suggestion say it’s archaic to separate women. It can make them feel like second-class citizens who have to be put on a special pedestal for their own protection. Instead, the critics argue, the focus should be on educating boys and men and making sure offenders are punished appropriately.

That’s all well and good but education and implementation take time and money. We can work towards new generations having better awareness of personal safety but that doesn’t help the 15% of Londoners experiencing sexual harassment today. Do we opt only for the long-term solution and deny victims a safe space in the meantime?

Culture Clash

women-only carriages
Those on the left are more likely to be groped than those on the right

Unfortunately Japan’s statistics on gropers reinforce the idea that a victim’s dress and comportment affect their attack. A Japanese cartoon (left) depicts a line-up of differently dressed women based on how likely they are to be targeted by a groper. The younger, more innocent and meek a woman looks the more likely she’ll be attacked. Those in louder clothing who look more powerful and outgoing are less likely to be touched.

The cartoon shows the extraordinary difference in our cultures. Westerners expect the women in revealing or stand-out clothing to be the first target of harassment but in Japan it’s more likely to be the school girl.

It’s this cultural divide more than overcrowding concerns that is the real problem for women-only carriages working in London. Western society isn’t shame-based and men certainly aren’t scared of those daring to bare a bit more skin. Hoping that men here will dutifully squeeze into a packed Tube carriage because the roomier one next to it is female-only is optimistic, to say the least. After all, we’re Londoners. While we care about personal safety we care far more about getting home quickly. Until that changes – or perhaps when hell freezes over – there will be no women-only carriages on the London Underground.


by Jo Davey

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  • Mido May 8, 2017 6:20 am

    ‘Chikan’ does not mean ‘Stupid Chinese’. The kanji character ‘KAN’ means ‘men’. It is misleading and makes Japanese people look racist. Please correct it.

    • Jo Davey May 8, 2017 9:33 am

      No it doesn’t mean “stupid Chinese” but the individual characters are those used for “stupid” and “Chinese”. The observation was not designed to make Japanese people look racist and has been altered – apologies for the confusion and thank you for your comment.

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