While you’re admiring the cherry blossoms, digging the serenity of the local temples, and watching the young fashion trendsetters in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you might also be on the lookout for a distinctly “sukebe” (perverse) aspect of Japanese culture.
I share this with you as an American woman who lived in Japan for three years and as someone who has a deep affinity for the country, the culture and its people. Still—as any Westerner can attest, there’s some weird shit about Japan. One such perversion is chikan, the gropers on trains.
In the United States, women learn to hold onto their pocketbooks out of concern for pickpocketing. In Japan, I learned instead to watch my ass—literally. This is because of a groping tendency some Japanese men have. These men are just ordinary guys dressed in suits, on their way to or from a long day at the office, squeezed into a train car so full it requires station attendants to lean with all their might into the throng of passengers in order to get the train doors to shut (much like sitting on your suitcase to close the zipper). Once you’re squeezed in, there’s nowhere to go. Movement is impossible. Arms are trapped at sides. Your face is inches away from another person’s nostrils. Twisting or moving slightly only produces a tightening effect, wedging you further into the contours of another human being.
All of which provides fertile ground for the groper who may, for example, be pretending to read a newspaper, but underneath the paper his hand reaches out to grab your boob. Or the one who stands stoically gazing at the advertisements hanging from the train ceiling while his clenched fist presses on, intentionally, against your crotch.
At first, there is overwhelming shock. Did that guy just reach out from under his newspaper and grab my breast? No, wait, that’s not possible. What? Seriously? Is that what just happened? It’s too much to fathom, the mind can’t even comprehend that it’s real. Then it happens again, the fist, the pressure, the shifting in the crotch area. Good Lord, seriously?
So I consult with Japanese friends and they lament I’ve had such an experience—this aspect of their culture is embarrassing for them. Yet it’s also validating to know that yes, in fact, I was groped, and it’s this “thing” about Japanese culture I was completely oblivious to until it happened. (If you’re still in disbelief look up “chikan train Japanese porn videos” and you’ll see just how real this phenomenon is.) Interestingly, I learned from an American guy friend of mine that he was also groped on the train. Far from being a homosexual overture, it was more of a curiosity grope, to see how big the package was. Even more shocking, when it happened a second time, it was a middle-aged Japanese woman doing the groping!
After being taken by surprise a few times, I finally got wise to train travel and came up with strategic ways to get on and off the train and also position myself once inside the car. Here are three quick tips to avoid being groped on trains in Japan:
1. Always hug the bars.
While waiting for a train door to open so you can get on, be sure to stand to the very left or right of the doors. This will allow you to grab onto one of the metal bars immediately to the left or right when you step onto the train. Grab one of those bars, hoist yourself through the door, and hold on for dear life as all the other people getting on squeeze past you and get a good shove from the station attendant. You will have to fight to hold this position vs. being shoved through the crowd, but once they are all squeezed in and the doors finally close, you’ll be able to rotate your body such that your rear is facing the bars (behind which is a train seat). This means you’ve got 50 percent of your body protected. The other 50 percent, the front, is the only thing you have to worry about, but being in this position allows you to hold your pocketbook in front of your chest and crotch. You won’t need to hold onto anything for balance because you will be surrounded on all sides by half a dozen people whose bodies wedge yours in place.
2. Prepare to be vocal.
I mean get ready to use your finest string of English expletives to humiliate any would-be groper. This, in fact, may be your best defense of all, but of course you can’t use it until after you’ve been groped. Japanese do not like attention, and they particularly don’t want negative attention. There have been fantastic stories about women who aggressively turned on their gropers by stomping on their feet or yelling “sukebe!” over and over again, right in the middle of the crowded train, much to the mortification of the unwitting chikan. In another instance, a woman waited until the train stopped, then as she and the groper were oozing out of the train with the hoards of passengers, she grabbed his hand and raised it in the air, yelling “Chikan! Chikan! Chikan!” for all to see and hear.
photo courtesy of Yoshi
3. Take the women-only passenger car.
These might not be available on every route, but it’s certainly worth asking about even if you don’t speak Japanese. Just ask one of the station attendants for the “women only” train and they will give you a universal nod (or indicate not available). The women-only trains are just that: free of men and the nuisance of groping. There is no extra fee or reservation needed. It is simply a convenience for women to feel more comfortable on their train commute.
Now—you may feel inclined to judge and criticize. I certainly experienced some disgust and outrage when it happened to me. Which is why I write this, in hopes that you are now armed with some good information to help you avoid getting groped in Japan. Unless of course you like that sort of thing.
One of the highlights of Shikoku is seeing the small clusters of pilgrims paying homage to Shikoku's revered saint: Kobo-daishi. Recognizable by their matching white suits (bearing the motto which translates: "Daishi and I, going together"), wooden staffs, and sedge hats, the pilgrims embark on what is known as "Shikoku Henro," or the Shikoku pilgrimage, to retrace the steps of Kobo-daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Many stories and myths, similar to the "miracles" performed by Jesus Christ, surround Daishi's accomplishments. But among his many admirable traits, skills, and powers, Kobo-daishi was also credited with introducing many aspects of Chinese culture into Japan, including a system of measures, various Chinese medicines, the growth and processing of tea, as well as architectural knowledge. Kobo-daishi has sometimes been dubbed a "father" of Japan.
Kobo-daishi's quest for truth along the shores of Shikoku
In his search for spiritual truth and enlightenment, Kobo-daishi roamed from the rocky shorelines of Shikoku, to the tops of its mountains, so today his followers often make the pilgrimage by foot (though some make it any way they can, by scooter, train, or bus). There are 88 Sacred Places (Buddhist temples)—88 representing the number of evil passions, as defined in Buddhist religious doctrine. It is believed one can get rid of an evil aspect of one's character at each of the temples, thus it's suggested that visiting only one temple is at least a good start!
Dedicated pilgrims pay homage at shrines and temples
One pilgrim hotspot is Kotohira, or Konpirasan, a combined shrine and temple which can only be reached by climbing hundreds of stone steps (as in over 800 gruelling, exhausting ones). The "reward" isn't that phenomenal, but to say you did it, "you and Daishi going together" as it were, may be worth it.
When crossing back to Honshu (the main island of Japan) via the Seto Inland Bridge, you can stop in Okayama prefecture to visit Zentsuji, a temple built around the birthplace of Kobo-daishi. Not just an ordinary temple, Zentsuji boasts a circular underground tunnel which takes visitors groping through pitch-black passageways until they arrive at a tiny candle-lit alcove, the supposed birthplace of Kobo-daishi himself. There you can take a rest from the dark, light incense and pray, or watch the candlelight dancing on the walls painted with Buddhist figures. Roaming the tunnels in total darkness is supposed to help us clear our minds and concentrate on ridding ourselves of our sins, though most people seem to giggle nervously as they grope along the walls--or maybe that's because someone from behind groped them.
Sins removed: Winterlong chocolate obsession and temptation to attack rude train passengers in Japan.