If you have done any travel in Japan, you will, most likely, have encountered special “Women-only train carriages”. This usually makes for an amusing story to tell your friends, about how you rushed onto a train as the doors were closing, only to find yourself surrounded by confused, and occasionally irate, women. However, the reasons behind the special carriages are not as amusing.
At first glance, the problem seems to have started with widespread reports of groping on trains. The Metropolitan Police Department reported a rise in cases of groping or obscene conduct.
One explanation for the increase of reported offences is not that they are becoming more common, but that they are much easier to report. Since most people carry a phone, capable of taking pictures and videos, it is becoming easier and easier to report crimes. However, as the problem was gaining a lot of attention, the authorities decided to implement a new strategy, which, in my opinion, is a mistake: female only train carriages.
But first, let’s look at some reactions from Japanese women. Aside from the feeling of greater security, some women enjoy the lack of typically male smells and the ability to talk with friends without being judged. However, the measure has not been without controversy. Many mothers complain about being separated from their junior high-aged sons since, apparently, as soon as a boy becomes a teenager, he qualifies as a potential sex pest. Some women also worry that should they ride in a mixed carriage, even if they are with male friends, they will be seen as a ‘willing victim’ for sexual advances.
Most male commuters also object to being crammed against fellow sweaty salary men while women ride in comfort. And I’m serious about being “crammed in”, check out this video of the Tokyo Subway.
Unfortunately for modern society, the policy on trains has now spread to other public areas. The reasoning is more acceptable in some cases, such as segregated sleeping-cafés or hostel dormitories. However, gender-separation in other venues has provoked accusations of discrimination.
In the Taito City Library in Tokyo, 10 of the 50 seats are reserved solely for women, while a co-ed university in Saitama Prefecture has a women only café. Discounts for women on restaurant and bar menus or cinema tickets are common, and exclusively female gyms, hotels and bars can be found.
Japanese lawyer, Yukata Iwaki argues that this runs the “risk of breaching the laws of equality”. It should be clear to everybody that maligning all men as potential sex-pests creates an unhealthy environment for modern gender relations.
The legal system in Japan offers little comfort either. 95% of people arrested in Japan sign confessions, and Japanese courts convict 99.9% of those who appear before them. Thus, when men stand accused of sexual crimes in an already suspicious climate, it threatens to ruin their lives regardless of veracity. There have been numerous cases of people being falsely accused and imprisoned.
The recent case of Iwao Hakamada highlights how the Japanese police can use force, or fabricate evidence to achieve a confession, and once the confession is signed, conviction is a sure thing. Hakamade was sentenced to death, and spent 45 years on death row until eventually the evidence against him was proven to be insufficient, incorrect or in some cases, wholly fabricated. Incidences of suicide following false accusations of groping have also been reported, such as the case of Shinsuke Harada in 2010.
In fact, the legal situation is so skewed, that Tokyo lawyer Takashi Nozawa advises against claiming innocence in court. He even suggests that the best way to avoid conviction is for accused men to simply flee the scene and not report the incident to police. Opponents of female-priority policy argue that it promotes an anti-social atmosphere in which women are assumed to be unsafe around men. This atmosphere could prove toxic to modern gender dynamics.
The operation of the segregated trains ultimately relies on the cooperation and discretion of male passengers: it is not a legally enforceable rule as it breaches equality laws. Female-only spaces are but of company request. If a man goes into one of these carriages, the most he will get are some angry stares, or a request to move to the cramped mixed carriage. That said, continuing to vilify men in this way will not lessen the gap between the genders, but reinforce the idea that the genders are different and should be treated differently.
For further reading check these stories out:
Colin Joyce, ‘Persistent gropers force Japan to introduce women-only carriages’.
Andrew Miller, ‘Has preferential treatment for women gone too far in Japan?’.
John Stuart, ‘Guilty and never proven innocent – every male train rider’s nightmare in Japan’.