Tokyo’s police force cracks down on groping commuters

PINCHING THE PINCHERS::The crackdown follows increasing harassment of women and reports that Web sites are aiding and encouraging rail predators


Sat, Sep 19, 2009 - Page 5

It is one of the safest cities in the world, but for teenage girls and young women, traveling on Tokyo’s vast train and subway system comes with the ever-present risk of sexual harassment from fellow commuters.

This week, however, the Japanese capital’s police launched a crackdown on the scourge of groping. In the first reported case, Tsutomu Yamane, 30, was arrested within minutes of allegedly groping a 15-year-old girl on Monday morning.

Undercover police officers have been dispatched to notorious train lines across Tokyo in a new offensive against chikan, a catch-all term that covers groping, sexual rubbing and surreptitious cellphone photography.

The introduction almost a decade ago of women-only carriages during the morning and evening rush hours failed to put an end to Japan’s chikan plague, despite warnings that convicted gropers face up to six months in prison and a fine of up to ¥500,000 (US$5,500).

Police in Tokyo make between 1,500 and 1,800 arrests a year, and have recorded more than 700 cases in the first six months of this year. More than 50 percent of victims are women in their 20s, and about a third are teenage girls. One survey said nearly two-thirds of young women say they have been touched inappropriately in train or underground carriages.

Kimiko Kitagawa, a 31-year-old business consultant, joined the long list of chikan victims as she stepped off a subway train near her office in central Tokyo earlier this year. “I felt a hand grab my backside, but when I turned around there were several men rushing to get past,” she said. “I had no way of knowing who had touched me.”

Confusion and embarrassment mean the number of groping incidents is suspected of being much higher than official reports suggest.

The crackdown came in response to a recent jump in cases involving groups of men who use online chat rooms to arrange where and when to target women. At least 100 Web sites list prime groping locations, offering hints on how to fondle undetected and evade arrest.

One site advises would-be gropers to select carriages with doors that open near platform escalators or staircases.

Several men arrested in recent months have admitted being encouraged by the Web sites and emboldened by the prospect of working as part of a group. A typical tactic is to position two men in front and behind a victim, while as many as six other men block the view of other passengers.

Attempts to prosecute gropers, however, have been frustrated by cases in which women have made false accusations in the hope of out-of-court settlements.