Chikan (noun, Japanese): A person who commits continual public acts of molestation, such as groping on a crowded Japanese train.
This is a real problem in Japan. So what should you do if you find yourself in contact with a groper on a crowded train?
1. Take 3 seconds to verify it is actually a chikan
Trains coming in and out of Tokyo are crowded, especially during the morning and evening rushes. I’ve mistaken a soft man-purse for a hand once or twice. Each time I was hit by a wave of panic – I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and turn around to confirm what was actually happening.
And both times it was just a small purse or arm pushed up against my butt – but the “offender” had no idea what they were doing.
[Note: I have met one man – and heard of another – who were wrongly accused of being a chikan from a terrified woman. That is not fair to them. The man I spoke to expressed his frustration at being labeled a pervert by a woman who mistook his bag for his hand – and talked about his shame and harassment at the hands of the station attendant and police. There are two sides to every story – but it is absolutely IMPERATIVE that you be sure you are being targeted by a chikan before you speak out. A wrong accusation can seriously hurt someone.]
If you’re interested in reading more on Chikan, I recommend Mico Keplar’s book, Chikan: Bizarre true accounts of train and street groping in Tokyo, Japan
2. Take a deep breath and work through the shock.
Here’s the thing about shock – no one knows how they will react. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a “fight or flight” reaction. Most people freeze. There’s nothing to be ashamed of – that’s the “normal” reaction.
While I have never been inappropriately touched by a chikan on a Japanese train, I have run into similar circumstances in both Texas and Ghana.
Somewhere during my teenage years, I learned how to work through the shock when this kind of thing happens. I recommend closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and allowing yourself to get angry.
3. Get angry. Don’t be apologetic.
If it really is a chikan, this isn’t a first-time thing because they think you’re “cute.” Rapists, sexual predators, and chikan are creatures of habit. They scan for targets (typically women who they think they can get away with – though sometimes they have other “preferences”). Chikan are known to identify, partially stalk, and take advantage of a specific type of woman.
[For more, check out: Things I don’t Understand about Japan – Chikan]
So get angry. You deserve to be angry. This is a person who is violating your freedom – and speaking up to punish them is scary. Channeling your anger can give you courage.
4. Say something.
This is the hardest step. And if you can’t say anything, just skip to step 5.
The easiest way to catch and punish a chikan is to, well, catch them in the act. The socially acceptable way to draw attention to a chikan on Japanese trains is to tightly grab their arm (typically the arm attached to the offending or groping hand mid-grope), raise your own hand, and yell “chikan!”
If you can speak some Japanese, the correct thing to say is “Sumimasen, chikan desu!” If not, you can just say “chikan!” while grabbing the offender’s hand. People will get the picture.
[Note: Once again, please be sure it is actually a chikan and not a confused passenger pressed up against your in the evening rush.]
Once a chikan has been identified, the barrier of “shame”/”mind your own business” (or whatever you want to call it) breaks. The people around you will take over.
I’m relying on the words of two friends – both of which who have seen this happen before.
Typically a young boy or older man will latch onto the chikan, take them off the train, and transfer custody to a station attendant. It is rare that you will have to give a statement (but I’ve heard that it can happen).
Still, be proud of yourself. You have done something good. Confronting a chikan is scary, difficult, and rather nerve-wracking. Chikan get away with groping because no standing up to them is difficult.
I have so many friends who have been groped, but who have frozen in shock or been unable to say anything, It’s… sad. But that is also a normal reaction – so if it happens to you, don’t feel ashamed.
4.5 Stab them with a tiny safety pin.
This advice came from someone who has dealt with chikan in Japan before. She recommends carrying a small safety pin in your pocket – for those times when you get groped but feel too embarrassed/shocked to call out and draw attention to yourself.
She says “I personally feel it’s empowering to feel like you taught them a lesson, even if it’s a relatively harmless stab from a safety pin.” And it might somewhat deter future behavior. So if you deal with chikan a lot and aren’t quite sure what to do, consider carrying a small safety pin in your pocket for “protection.”
5. If you can’t say anything, get away. Fast.
If you find yourself unable to say anything (shame, shock, you’re unsure about what is happening, you don’t think people will believe you, etc), then step away. You’re not the only one who has been unable to confront a chikan. Don’t worry about it.
Your first concern “you” – so remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. It can be as simple as walking to a different cart or as thorough as physically exiting the train and walking around the train station for a while to clear your head.
6. Talk to friends and loved ones (and consider therapy).
Why? Because being assaulted by a chikan is a form of sexual assault and everyone reactions to sexual assault differently. Some people will be perfectly fine and never give it a second thought (except when everyone is sharing their “only in Japan” moments). Some people will think they are fine, but have odd night terrors and a fear of public transportation. Really, everyone reacts differently.
You may be tempted to blow if off, “it was just one groper. They didn’t hurt me.” Perhaps that is true. However, the reaction to trauma is broken into two stages: immediate and long-term.
The immediate reaction is typically anger. Or sadness. Or frustration at the system. Or a feeling of helplessness. Or a feeling like everything is ok.
The long-term reaction is a bit more complicated. It might be an aversion toward physical contact with Japanese men. It could be a sense of paranoia while on the train. It could be a sense of helplessness, like you are not longer as safe as you used to be roaming the streets of Tokyo.
Trauma is incredibly difficult to explain to someone who has never gone through it. The basic takeaway is that being groped by a chikan is more than touching. It can mess you up.
Your perceptions of the country and the people inside of it might change… and that’s ok. That is normal.
7. Understand that you will probably never get closure.
Regardless of what you do now, the past cannot be changed. If you were unable to speak out against the chikan, they are probably still out there.And you might never get closure. That chikan might never be caught.
You might feel unsafe being out alone at night for the next couple months. You might start riding in the women only train cars. You cannot change that.
But you can use this experience to make you stronger. You should never label yourself as a “victim” of sexual assault – you’re a survivor. So keep on surviving.
And keep a vigil watch out for chikan.
[Note: In closing, if you are not sure if someone is a chikan or is accidentally touching your butt, walk away. Don’t even think, just walk away.]
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