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Harsh spotlight on Japan's 'chikan' groping problem as word enters world lexicon

Image taken from the British government's official website (Mainichi)

Following the addition of the Japanese word "karoshi," death by overwork, "chikan," meaning molestation, appears to be finding its way into the vocabulary of international society.

The websites for the British and Canadian governments warn travelers to Japan about molestations on busy trains, while a novel about a Japanese woman who was a victim of "chikan" was published last October in France. Is it time to take another look at the circumstances surrounding this kind of serious sexual assault in Japan?

"R eports of inappropriate touching or 'chikan' of female passengers on commuter trains are fairly common," is listed under "safety and security" for those traveling to Japan on the British government's official website. "The police advise that you shout at the perpetrator to attract attention and ask a fellow passenger to call the train staff."

In response to a Mainichi Shimbun query, a representative at the British Embassy in Tokyo explained, "We have been using the word 'chikan' for several years now. As a government body, we have a responsibility to provide information about possible risks at a given destination." While the same page on the website for the Canadian government doesn't go as far as to use the Japanese word, under safety and security for women it still reads, "Inappropriate touching may occur in busy subways and trains during morning and evening commuting hours."

As for the novel, "Tchikan," it is a collaborative piece by French author Emmanuel Arnaud and Japanese woman Kumi Sasaki. Based on the experience of Sasaki, who was molested when she began riding Tokyo's JR Yamanote Line to attend a private junior high school at 12 years old, the work describes how someone thrust their hand into a girl's underwear, how she then considers suicide, along with other topics, in great detail. The book was covered by French media, including national public television.

"I was terrified of my attacker retaliating, so I couldn't even raise my voice," Sasaki told the Mainichi Shimbun. "Even though many people become the victims of chikan, I was never once taught at school or by my family what I should do." Sasaki hopes that through the novel, she can spread awareness about "just how despicable a crime" chikan is.

While the problem of sexual assault is not unique to Japan, the sheer number of railway commuters that have experienced chikan stands out among developed countries. A National Police Agency research group has been analyzing Japan's filled-to-capacity commuter trains as a hotbed for molestation cases. According to a report by the agency, there were 3,217 reported cases of chikan in 2016, but mental health and welfare professional Akiyoshi Saito, who treats those who committed sex crimes, says, "That's only the tip of the iceberg -- the number of victims is over 100,000 annually."

Of the disgraceful appearance of the Japanese word chikan in foreign media, Saito points to the influence of Japanese pornographic websites. "I hear that chikan-themed adult content sites get an extremely large number of hits from abroad," he explained. "There are foreigners who say they learned the word chikan while in Japan as well."

Saito also authored a book released last year titled "Otoko ga chikan ni naru riyu" (The reason men become chikan). Turning the traditional image of the molestation upside-down, Saito pointed out that the phenomenon has little basis in sexual desire. Rather, it is done to relieve stress or out of a need to exert power over the victim. He also writes of attackers who he says have internalized the value system of male domination and female subjugation and justify their actions by saying things like, "I worked hard all day, so it's fine for me to molest women."

Saito considers chikan to be a type of addiction, and says that it takes roughly three years of cognitive behavioral treatment to make the offender regret their past actions and to change their value system. Even more time is necessary to prevent the individual from committing the crime again. Because of these factors, Saito says treatment in the early stages is crucial to reducing the amount of damage caused.

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