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Female views on Japan TV against women-only train carriages reignite sexism debate

Many railway operators in Japan have introduced women-only cars on their commuter services. A sign for one is seen in this unrelated image, taken in Nagoya on Nov. 18, 2008. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

TOKYO -- In mid-January, some major TV stations in Japan broadcast specials on women who don't want to ride in women-only carriages available on many cities' rail services as part of efforts to reduce instances of groping on public transport.

People appearing on the shows, including those broadcast by TV Asahi and TBS, have complained of disputes in the cars, with some saying "There's a harsh smell of makeup and perfume," and, "People behave badly because they're out of men's sight."

The shows have ignited criticism online, with commenters saying, "Disputes occur on standard carriages too," and, "It's using women-only cars as material to bash women." There have been persistent movements to try to get the cars abolished as some argue they constitute "discrimination against men," despite there being many victims of groping on train carriages. Others point out the media should focus on calling out those who commit sexual assault on trains instead.

A hashtag saying that women-only cars were necessary also started getting picked up, and people talking about the realities of being victims of groping saw their messages spread.

Rail firms in large urban areas have established cars solely for female passengers' use during the rush hour period. East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) and Tokyo Metro Co. have women-only carriages generally between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., although the timing differs slightly depending on the line. West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) and parts of the metro services in Osaka and Nagoya have women-only cars in operation for the entire day.

Boys of elementary school age or younger, as well as disabled people and those providing care for them can also use the carriages. The system is not based on any law, and men are not punished for riding the cars.

The latest heated argument around women-only carriages came after the Jan. 13 edition of TV Asahi's "Hatori Shinichi Morning Show" aired a feature called "Why is there an increase in women who don't want to ride women-only cars?"

The piece opened with a passage lifted from social media: "Because there are women who won't ride women-only cars, standard carriages are full, and there are men who can't sit down." It then claimed that the segregated carriages were "transforming into battlefields" due to the frequency in which conflict erupts on them.

Then it turned to interviews with women who refrain from riding in the cars, who said the smell of makeup and passengers' tendency to steal each other's available space were among the reasons why they choose not to get on them.

Next were a series of clips from interviews with people in the street, who offered brief thoughts including, "Women are pushy," and, "When men aren't around, they don't care whether people can see them." The piece's narration then added, "What are typical battles that occur in women-only spaces where there are no men present?"

Cutting back to the studio, Chiharu Saito, a female presenter on the show, said, "I understand it. It was like I was nodding along in agreement the whole time. It makes my stress rise, so I don't really ride them." She said she felt there really is trouble between women.

Another presenter, Shimpei Nogami, then revealed "data" from the program's own investigations which it billed as a "surprising reality," namely that 35 out of 50 people said they don't ride in women-only cars.

Masako Makino, a doctoral research fellow at Ryukoku University Criminology Research Center (CrimRC) and the author of "What is chikan molestation? A sociological study of harm and false accusations," is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Nov. 22, 2019. (Mainichi/Hiromi Makino)

It then showcased a number of "testimonials" provided that explained why not. Among them were: "Women-only carriages are on either end of the train, so they're inconvenient to use," and, "I would be embarrassed if people looked at me and were thinking 'No one's going to want to grope you'." Others said, "Fur (from clothes) and people's ponytails get in my face," and "Many people wear heels. When they can't stay up when the train shakes they lean on you." Another said, "Women who have the same branded products compete to see who has the newest one, it's a contest to be on top."

The commentators on the show expressed their surprise and ridiculed some of what they heard. As the feature wrapped up, the eponymous main host Shinichi Hatori said, "I didn't know these kinds of things happened." Nogami concluded the segment, "Now we understand something that the male point of view has never ventured to consider."

On Jan. 15, TBS show "Gutto Luck" aired its own feature, called, "Why on earth are there women who don't want to ride the women-only cars?" It showcased some examples of social media posts criticizing women who don't ride in them. Then it played a piece with female interviewees that was strikingly similar to the TV Asahi program aired two days earlier.

The show's compere, Tatekawa Shiraku, a male rakugo comic storyteller, said, "If there were men, they'd be more self-conscious, and quit that (bad mannered behavior) wouldn't they? They should come up with regulations (on women-only cars)." But the show also aired the voices of individuals saying the cars were necessary, and a survey by the program found that 151 people said they wanted to ride the carriages, while just 49 said they didn't.

Tomonori Takahashi, a lawyer and commentator on the show, said, "For young people who have been victims of sexual assault on trains, riding the train can become traumatic. I strongly feel it's much better to have them (women-only cars)." Presenter Yuko Wakabayashi said, "I'm skeptical that the presence of men's eyes has any effect. For women, it's important that there are safe spaces."

Author and commentator Hiroki Mochizuki posed a question, saying, "Isn't it a straw man argument when the issue is recast in a misogynistic way or to claim that men are the ones being discriminated against?"

Meanwhile, another TBS program, "N suta," put out its own piece on women-only cars on the same day.

But why did these TV shows air features attacking women-only cars almost simultaneously? It appears that it all started with an article on the information site "J townnet." At the end of 2019, it published an email from a male reader criticizing women who don't ride in the cars.

J townnet next put out a series of reader response pieces which became points for wider discussion. One, published on Jan. 7 was entitled: "Women who don't ride in women-only cars speak openly: 'Using them is scary,' 'It's better to be buried in among middle-aged men." Another on Jan. 13 was called, "Is the women's carriage smelly and dirty? Riders reveal the reality: 'It's scattered with face oil blotting paper."

Following the continual reports of behavioral infractions and conflicts on the carriages, people took to Twitter to defend the schemes, saying, "I'm afraid of traveling on trains after experiencing sexual violence. Women-only cars are helpful. They are malicious reports." Another wrote, "Conflicts between passengers happen on other carriages too. Are they trying to make these problems a women's issue?" Another voiced their concerns, "This could lead to reductions and abolition of the carriages."

Amid strong criticism of the reporting, hashtags saying that the cars were necessary and a shelter for women also proliferated, and voices speaking out about the reality of being victims of sexual violence spread.

In response to a request for comment from the Mainichi Shimbun, TV Asahi Corp.'s public affairs department said, "We never comment on how our programs are produced. We are receiving a variety of opinions and comments from our viewers." The TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System Television, Inc) public relations division also declined to comment.

But what led to women-only cars becoming such a common sight in Japan's cities in the first place? In the chaotic postwar period, the then Japanese National Railways (JNR) provided ladies and children only carriages on its Chuo Line trains in the Tokyo area between 1947 and 1973, which were designed to protect them from the crowds.

In 1988, a woman who reproached a man for groping then became the subject of his resentment, and he raped her. Following the attack, calls from women's groups and others for the introduction of women-only carriages became stronger. Conversely, between the mid-1990s and the 2000s, the media began to make more of a fuss about issues around false accusations of groping on trains.

The increased presence of women-only cars came about in 2000, when Keio Corp. did test runs of the scheme. The following year it fully implemented the carriages. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism then appealed to other operators to pursue similar measures. The cars were subsequently introduced on lines in the capital region in 2005, and eventually onto railway services in Osaka and other cities.

But in reality, even now there are many cases of people becoming victims of groping, the same kind of incidents that brought about women-only cars in Japan.

According to the 2018 edition of a police white paper, there were 269 confirmed cases of indecent assault on trains in 2017. When including groping outside of trains that were classed as contraventions of nuisance prevention ordinances, the number of cases rises to 2,943.

The Metropolitan Police Department's figures for 2017 show that confirmed incidences of indecent assault in Tokyo came to 714, of which the department built criminal cases for 606. There were also 1,771 cases of groping and camera voyeurism handled by authorities, according to the force.

Of the recorded indecent assaults, around 15% of them took place on trains, and crimes connected to nuisance prevention ordinances happened on trains and at station facilities in about 70% of cases. Groping incidents were concentrated around morning commute times, between 7 and 9 a.m.

But there appear to be a considerable number of people who are victims of such crimes, but never report them, and it's thought that the true number of those affected by the acts is much higher.

There are also continual claims in society that women-only cars are "causing other standard use carriages to become crowded," and that their use constitutes "a form of discrimination against men." There are also movements online to have the cars abolished, and in February 2018 men who oppose the scheme and who travel in cities including Tokyo and Kyoto deliberately rode in the carriages. The protests led to repeated commotions and delays. In April 2018, citizens groups filed a petition with Tokyo Metro, asking that it be expressly forbidden for men to ride in the carriages, among other demands.

Masako Makino, a doctoral research fellow at Ryukoku University Criminology Research Center (CrimRC) and the author of "What is chikan? A sociological study of harm and false accusations," commented on the TV programs: "The issue is that they were using women-only cars as material for women-bashing.

"It's problematic that these programs entirely ignore the events that led to the cars being established to prevent groping and the reality that there are still victims of sexual assault on trains. It gets women to attack each other, attempts to give significance to the existence of men, and allows men on the outside to enjoy watching the conflict.

"That is in and of itself discrimination against women. It is rooted in the perceptions of a long-standing male-dominated society which has accepted groping and treated victimhood of groping lightly."

She added, "There had also been media that used the subject of women-only cars as material to handle with a voyeuristic perspective, saying things like 'Only ugly women ride them. Judging from the fact that women voiced criticism of these programs on social media, I feel that more and more people are speaking out against sexual violence and discrimination of women and that we're in the process of becoming a society in which people can more easily raise their voices."

"That being said, it brings up a lot of questions as to why, in the making of these programs, women's views weren't reflected."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa and Hiromi Makino, Integrated Digital News Center)

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