Additional reporting by Shiori Ito.
Tokyo, Japan – Tamaka Ogawa was about 10 years old when she was sexually assaulted for the first time. It was a public holiday and she was on the subway. A man standing behind her pulled down the band of her culottes and underwear, touched her bare bottom, then pressed himself against her. She recalls feeling shocked and physically sickened. When she reached home, she repeatedly washed the spot where he had pressed himself against her, although she was conscious of not spending too long in the toilet, in case her family noticed that something was wrong.
Some years later, on her first day of senior high school, she was groped on the commute home. After that, the groping and sexual assaults – men would often stick their hands inside her underwear – became a regular occurrence as she made her way to or from school in her uniform. Each time, she would run away, unsure of what to do.
“I thought of myself as a child,” she reflects. “I could not understand that adults were excited by touching me.”
It would be improper to express anger towards an adult, she thought, and she worried about attracting attention. Besides, her parents had never spoken to her about such things and how she ought to handle them.
She recalls one incident particularly clearly. She was about 15 and on her way to school. A man began to touch her, putting his hand inside her underwear. He was aggressive and it hurt, she remembers. When the train stopped, she got off. But he grabbed her hand and told her: “Follow me.” Ogawa ran away. She believes that people saw what was going on, but nobody helped.
She felt ashamed and complicit, she says.
“He seems to have thought that I was pleased with his act,” the now 36-year-old reflects.
“When I was in high school, every [girl] was a victim,” says Ogawa. “[We] didn’t think we could do anything about it.”
Today, Ogawa, a writer and cofounder of Press Labo, a small digital content production company in Shimokitazawa, an inner-city Tokyo neighbourhood, often writes about Japan’s gender inequality and sexual violence issues.
In 2015, she began writing about the country’s long-standing problem with groping – or chikan, in Japanese – often experienced by schoolgirls on public transportation. Many victims stay silent, unable to talk about their experiences in a society which, by many accounts, trivialises this phenomenon.
But, in the past two years, that has begun to change as more people speak up against it.
Yayoi Matsunaga is one of those people.
One morning in late January, the 51-year-old arrived at a coffee shop in the bustling neighbourhood of Shibuya with a suitcase of badges.
The round badges, designed to deter gropers, feature illustrations such as a schoolgirl peering angrily from between her legs, or a crowd of stern-looking rabbits and include the messages, “Groping is a crime” and “Don’t do it”. Each comes with a leaflet instructing the wearer to clearly display the badges on their bags, to stand confidently and to be vigilant.
Matsunaga began her Osaka-based organisation, Groping Prevention Activities Centre, in 2015 after her friend’s daughter was regularly molested while taking the train to school.
Takako Tonooka, the pseudonym she has used in interviews with the Japan Times, confided in her mother, and the two tried various solutions to stop the attacks. They bought a stuffed toy which says “Don’t do it” when pulled. They spoke to the police and the railway authorities, who said they would act if it was the same perpetrator – but it never was. Tonooka even wore her school skirt shorter and found that she was harassed less.
Matsunaga says trains display posters telling groping victims to be brave and to speak up. Tonooka started practising saying “Stop it” and “No” at home. She began to confront offenders, who would then angrily deny touching her. Onlookers did not help. Eventually, she and her mother created a label to attach to her bag, which says, “Groping is a crime. I’m not going to give up” and features a picture of policemen catching perpetrators. It worked.
But the label made Tonooka self-conscious, and Matsunaga says boys teased her.
Matsunaga decided that Tonooka should not have to fight on her own, so she came up with an idea to involve others by crowdsourcing ideas for anti-groping badges.
“High school girls are really into this ‘kawaii’ culture so they had to be cute,” she says.
In November 2015 she launched a crowdfunding campaign that attracted 334 donors and raised 2.12 million yen (about $19,000). Then, she ran a badge design crowdsourcing contest.
High school pupils, art school students, and freelance designers – many telling her it was the first time they’d thought about the issue – submitted 441 designs from which Matsunaga selected five. Her organisation gave away about 500 and three police stations handed out more. She now sells them online, for 410 yen ($3.70) each. From March, 11 department stores will stock them and she’s aiming to secure more distributors near train stations.
Apart from making the badges more widely available, Matsunaga also wants offenders to see them and think: “The world is changing, some people have started talking about it.”
By involving students, Matsunaga believes she’s encouraging them to talk about this issue from a young age.
The badges have had a direct effect. Data collected from 70 students at a high school in Saitama prefecture, just north of Tokyo, between April and December 2016, showed that 61.4 percent of respondents said they had not been touched since using the badges, while 4.3 percent reported no change.
Railway police have also started holding awareness-raising lectures with high schools which have enabled students to feel more comfortable speaking about the issue, Matsunga says.
In Ogawa’s opinion, the badges are an important intervention because they do not label anyone a victim or perpetrator, and they prompt discussion. “You need courage to wear these badges,” she says. “[They’re] cute but the message is strong.”
Despite such initiatives, experts say Japanese society remains willfully oblivious or unaware of how widespread this problem is and how often girls are assaulted.
Hiroko Goto, a feminist, professor of criminal law at Chiba University and vice president of Japan-headquartered NGO Human Rights Now, believes many people do not consider groping to be a crime. “[For] society at large, it’s not a big problem; that’s the kind of double standard [between] the victims’ viewpoint and the social viewpoint.”
In Ogawa’s opinion, society normalises groping as something that just happens.
There are no accurate figures on the number of victims; only a fraction are believed to report incidents.
One key problem when it comes to talking about “groping” is that people have very different ideas about what that entails; the term itself fails to adequately describe the range of violations. The widely held assumption is that groping is non-consensual touching over clothing, something deemed a minor crime and punishable under Japan’s prefecture-level Anti-Nuisance Ordinance. Under the ordinance, the sentence is usually six months in jail or a 500,000 yen ($4,500) fine.
“I hear many girls telling me that they have experienced men’s hands under their skirt, and the groper’s fingers in their vagina,” Matsunaga says. “It is rape.”
Men ejaculated on Ogawa’s friends. Often, she says, the perpetrators put their hands inside her underwear. Many times, the abuse involved being penetrated by men’s fingers.
Police officers usually decide whether more serious groping-related cases, where the violations include penetration, should be filed under Article 176 of the Penal Code, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But just a tiny proportion of the total reported cases get filed under this article. Article 177, which pertains to rape, carries harsher penalties, but its legal definition is extremely narrow and only considers rape to be forced sexual intercourse.
According to Ogawa, groping-related violations are too often downplayed by society as a “nuisance”. It was only when she started writing about these crimes, she says, that she discovered that what she had experienced was sexual assault. “What was shocking me the most is that I didn’t realise that I was experiencing indecent assault,” Ogawa says.
Japanese society focuses on telling women to be careful, how to dress and to travel in women-only carriages – which are mainly available during peak hours on weekday mornings – Ogawa says. “They are telling women to protect themselves, to be careful, but no one tells the men not to do it,” she says.
Even the rail authorities’ anti-groping posters are too cute and miss the point, Ogawa argues.
“They don’t talk to the perpetrators. I wish there would be posters saying, ‘If you want to grope, you need to see a doctor’,” she says. Ogawa would also like to see more CCTV cameras installed on trains, something she believes Japan can do as it shores up surveillance for the 2020 Olympics.
Ogawa believes that a collective understanding of what actually happens on public transport is crucial. But for that to happen, more victims must speak up. “I think if women don’t talk about what is happening, then it will be always invisible,” she says.
Convincing society that there’s a problem is further complicated by a dominant narrative about men being falsely accused. Ogawa and others who write about sexual violence say much of the online backlash they receive comes from men who say this is the real problem.
“If we talk about sexual violence, especially if the topic is about groping, the main … concern is about false accusation,” Ogawa says.
“The media always blames … the victims,” explains Goto, who points to the fact that Japan’s mainstream and social media is male-dominated.
“The media [is] overly focused on this topic [of false accusations],” says Ogawa – who believes that false accusations and convictions are rare as compared to actual instances of sexual assault.
She points to the widely reported story of Koji Yatabe, whom a district court found guilty of forcing a young girl to touch his penis in 2000. Yatabe, who fought his conviction and eventually had it overturned by a high court judge, co-wrote a book with his wife about his case. That was then turned into a film called I Just Didn’t Do It.
Ogawa believes the media over-reported Yatabe’s side of the story, instilling fear about false accusations and creating a distraction from the problem of sexual violence. Worse, she says, it discouraged victims from being “able to talk about it [groping] – and that’s a problem”.
That absence of victims’ perspectives, is why Aiko Tabusa, a non-fiction manga artist, started blogging about groping in 2011. “There was either groping porn or innocent gropers’ stories,” the 38-year-old explains.
She is currently working on a manga book about groping on trains, an idea she tried to pursue six years ago with three publishers, who all turned her down.
“They were like, ‘Who’s going to read that? There’s no demand’,” Tabusa recalls. “For me, groping was like a daily life story.”
Many Japanese women say they stopped experiencing groping when they graduated from high school and no longer wore school uniforms.
“[It] never happened [again] since I took off my uniform,” says 20-year-old Kotomi Araki, an economics undergraduate student and waitress, who says she was groped on crowded trains throughout high school.
When asked about the perception of schoolgirls, Araki and others refer to the archetype of “Lolita”.
According to Goto, this idea is borrowed from the Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, but in Japan is largely understood as a young girl who is “the image of obedience, subservience”, and is reinforced in widely read manga.
“Japanese society is highly patriarchal,” says Goto, explaining that this has roots in the Confucian ideals which originated in China and became widespread after the end of the Meiji imperial era in 1912. “[There’s a] strong belief men should be superior to women.”
Pre-modern Japan was traditionally less patriarchal, according to Emiko Ochiai, a sociologist and historian at Kyoto University. “In the ancient period, Japan had female kings, but it became rare in the later period. In the medieval period, there were female warriors or generals,” Ochiai says.
“Confucianism influenced the declining status of women in [Japan],” she says. That ideology was spread by popular stories and dramas and was “reinforced in the process of modernisation under the impact from the West”.
Today, “To be a woman is a ‘caste’ in this society,” Ochiai says. “You cannot get out of that destiny. [Only] if you are very successful in education and business, you can be a man.”
But from the women’s movement in the 1970s to, more recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agenda to boost women’s participation in the workforce as part of an economic growth plan, men’s power has been challenged, according to Goto.
“One reason to do groping is to show their power to women and the younger girls,” Goto says. She believes offenders carefully target vulnerable-looking schoolgirls. She worries that as older schoolgirls begin to speak up, perpetrators will begin to target even younger girls.
Ogawa says many people believe men target schoolgirls because they are child molesters. “I think that’s true, too,” she says. But she also believes: “People want to target these kids and girls because they haven’t been touched; because no one has conquered them.”
Sociologist Kazue Muta agrees. Some men are aroused by schoolgirls because they “represent innocent and pure figures, to whom patriarchy should prohibit sexual access,” says Muta, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Osaka University, over email.
“However, the offenders are not always or necessarily sexually driven; rather, what drives them is the desire to control and dominate a target. The more she seems embarrassed, troubled, or perplexed, the [more the] offender would be satisfied, because it means he is controlling and dominating her. Schoolgirls are young and oftentimes docile and obedient to grown-up men,” Muta adds.
This sexualisation of schoolgirls extends to themed bars in red-light districts and exploitative “JK cafes” (JK stands for joshi kosei or high school girl) where adult men pay to chat to teenage girls, have their fortunes told or have their ears cleaned. Manga pornography depicting schoolgirls is also widely and openly available. It was only in 2014 that Japan criminalised the possession of child pornography.
Within walking distance of Ikebukuro train station, among the lanes of restaurants, are a number of mostly unsigned JK cafes. One innocuous-looking sandwich board with pink bubble font, lists, with blue heart bullet points, the range of available services. There are also themed bars for male-only customers who pay about $200 an hour to grope the women working there.
One 38-year-old man, who declined to give his name, explains that he has been to these bars in Ikebukuro – paying 15,000 yen ($133) to enter – including a bar furnished to look like the inside of a subway carriage. Customers choose what kind of woman they’d like to grope – often, the choice is between someone dressed up like a schoolgirl or an office worker. He says he believes the women working there are over the age of 18.
“They [Japanese men] love cute, pure, young; that’s what [they] find sexually attractive,” he says.
“I just go there to have fun,” he adds. In his opinion, these bars can prevent someone from groping in public.
Akira Wada, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym, said he goes to these bars out of curiosity and has never groped anyone in public. The first bar he visited was high school-themed and while the 35-year-old says he’s not into uniforms, he says he likes young women. His company dinners sometimes end up at these bars.
He’s terrified, however, of being falsely accused of groping in public and says he always takes the precaution of finding a seat on the train. He says even if his bag accidentally bumps into a girl, he’s worried about being accused of touching her. “In the packed train car, anyone can be [a] victim or perpetrator,” he says.
In his opinion, men who grope on trains are motivated both by the public nature of the act and the fact that it is non-consensual.
Matsunaga worries such bars could condone this behaviour in public.
“I wish groping bars would say: ‘This is something you can’t do outside’,” Ogawa says.
Groping and rape are categories in Japanese pornography, says Ogawa, who adds that if she speaks out against rape or groping, commenters tell her she does not understand sex. “People mix up these things,” she explains.
When women talk about sex in Japan, she says, furrowing her brow, we either get attention from perverts or people who are against sex. For the next 30 years, I feel like I have to keep saying sex and sexual violence are two different things, she adds.
For older women who’ve experienced sexual assault, speaking out is just as hard.
Last year, Japan’s labour ministry released findings from an unprecedented study, in which, of nearly 10,000 female respondents aged 25 to 44, almost one-third of women said they had been sexually harassed at work, with inappropriate touching being one of the most common problems. Fewer than 40 percent of women took action.
A 52-year-old woman, who did not want to disclose her name or workplace, explained that she was recently sexually assaulted by someone, whose face she did not see, at her workplace in Tokyo. When she reported the incident to her employers, she says they were sympathetic but deterred her from going to the police, telling her to think about the company’s reputation and the trauma she would have to relive. She felt they simply did not want any trouble for the company.
But she also did not want to go to the police and does not want anyone to know. “I can’t talk about this – to anyone,” she says.
“It’s shameful,” she adds. “I thought, if I just forget, I can go back to a normal life.”
Tabusa, the manga artist, is heartened that the problem is increasingly being talked about, but says, “I don’t think there’s enough discussion yet.”
It needs to be taken seriously and more people need to be aware because the “groping victims are often children”, she says.
Women also make light of the issue, she reflects. “People just think this happens every day, so they have to laugh about it.”
Society also conflates groping with desirability. “I feel like people have this mindset that, if you are an old lady, you should appreciate that men still look at you like that or want to grope you,” she says.
When it comes to groping and sexual assault, Ogawa and Tabusa believe a real cultural shift will only come when more victims speak out.
“First of all, women have to talk about their experience and speak up,” Ogawa says.
But at every turn, society tries to stop them.
“The reason they can’t say [anything] is because they’re ashamed,” Ogawa says. “And sometimes, if they talk about it, some people think they are just bragging: I’ve been groped.”
They’re told it’s their fault, Ogawa says, they’re accused of looking for sympathy, or, simply silenced by the words: “It happens to everyone.”