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Number 1 Shimbun

A One-Time Victim Raises Her Voice Against Chikan

No1-2018-01 One Time Victim

 

A One-Time Victim Raises Her Voice Against Chikan

by Johann Fleuri 

Everyone living in Japan has heard of the chikan, those men who ride on crowded trains in order to assault young girls, often high-school teenagers in uniforms. Now one of their victims, a woman in her thirties who writes under the nom de plume Kumi Sasaki, has spoken out. In a book published in France in October, she describes hundreds of the assaults that she bore almost daily on the Yamanote Line, as a middle school and high school student.

At 8:30 AM, employees are going to work, kids to school. For the next hour trains of the Yamanote Line, which move around and around Tokyo's hotspots, will be completely packed – so crowded that station attendants have to literally push passengers into the cars before the doors can close.

Two decades ago, Kumi Sasaki rode this line daily to go to her private school. At the beginning, she was very new to Tokyo since she’d been living in Hong Kong with her parents and younger brother.

She was on her way to take an important exam when she encountered her first chikan on the Yamanote. She was 12 years, two months and 24 days years old.

Even now, she remembers the assault vividly. “It lasted for seven minutes” – like an eternity to her child’s mind. “He touched my breast with his thumb. I thought at first it was an accident since all the passengers were so close in the packed car. But he never moved his finger. He kept it here, on me. After a moment, he put his hand under my skirt. I was terrified.”

Her knees were still shaking when she arrived at school. She went straight to her teacher – “who didn't react at all.” Then, in the evening, she confided in her mother – “who didn't understand what I was trying to say.” After that, she gave up trying to talk about it.

Years went by and chikan became more numerous. Through the pages of her book, written after she had settled down in France, she recounts the assaults that she had to bear almost daily, in silence, through her 18th year. They happened in the train, mostly, but sometimes in the street.

“I remember this one time, a chikan followed me when I got out of the train. He kept walking behind me and asked me to go somewhere with him. I was so scared that he would see where I lived and could come back anytime he would want to.” After a moment, the man stopped following and left her a little more broken inside. Another time, a chikan who had assaulted her in the Yamanote looked her in the eyes as he exited the train and said, “Thank you.”

“I wanted to scream. ‘Thank you’ for what? I had no will for that to happen.”

One morning, Sasaki thought about dying. She just wanted everything to stop. She felt ready to jump under the train, the same infamous train that had been the theater of her intense suffering for many years. “My friend from school saw me that day and came to talk to me. I never knew if she guessed what I was going to do.”

Now Kumi Sasaki is in her thirties. She divides her time between Tokyo and Paris, where she has been living for about ten years. Almost two decades had to pass before she put words to what happened to her, co-writing her story with a Japanese-speaking French novelist.

“I am ready to try to make things change by speaking out about what happened to me when I was a child,” Sasaki says. “People tend to think that chikan are just fetishists who like to touch young girls’ skirts but it's worse. They are sexual predators who should be stopped.”

“One thing is certain,” she adds. “Today, nothing has changed on the Yamanote.”

That fact is confirmed by Akiyoshi Saito, author of The Reasons Why Men Become Chikan, published in Japan last summer.

The Ota-ku, Tokyo, clinic where Saito works, specializing in addictions, runs a program for chikan who want to be cured of their perversion. In twelve years, the clinic has received over 3200 chikan patients and he has had to refuse applications due to the limited capacity of his establishment, he says.

The typical chikan, Saito says, is an otherwise ordinary salaryman, married with kids, with a university degree, typically thought of as the perfect dad, the best employee of his company, the most caring husband. “When he gets on the train, he just changes in a second.”

Frustrated by a tiring, stressful daily routine over which he has little control, “he feels lucky, all of a sudden, to have inadvertently touched the hand of a woman. For some of them, it is the beginning of a series of assaults they cannot control anymore. It is becoming an addiction. In the most extreme cases, they can spend a whole day in different trains to assault as many as twenty girls. They attack the most fragile and vulnerable ones.”

The chikan phenomenon has dramatically increased since the 1990s, Saito asserts. “Our clinic specializes in all kinds of addictions that are represented in the country – sex addiction, workaholism, alcoholism, anorexia, bulimia and so on. Chikan by far outnumber the others among our patients.”

He estimates that there are 10,000 chikan in Japan, concentrated in larger cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Sapporo – cities whose residents have to deal with crowded trains every weekday. “In the old days, chikan were in the streets,” Satio says. “They couldn’t act out their fantasies as discreetly as they are able to do in the crowded train carriages.”

The female victims for the most part remain quiet. “We are ashamed, explains Kumi Sasaki. A girl who would speak out publicly about such a situation is considered to have humiliated herself, becoming dirty in the eyes of Japanese society, she says. “It is like she is a lost cause and people would say she will never find a husband.”

Looking for explanations of the problem, Sasaki notes that Japanese private schools, contrary to public schools, generally are not coeducational. “Many teenagers grow up asking themselves a lot of questions about the other sex, without receiving answers. That was my case.”

Commercial outlets substitute for sound instruction regarding real intimacy. Youngsters are daily exposed to pornography through manga, films and free-access Internet. “When I was in high school, I didn't know anything about making love and sexuality but I knew the price for one hour with an escort girl,” she recalls.

Chikan, she thinks, “assault high school girls because they are symbols of pure innocence and virginity in Japan. Fantasies about school-girl uniforms are tied to this, I guess.”

Aware of the problem, JR companies and some other operators of commuter lines have launched women-only cars in Japan's biggest cities, starting with Osaka. The system has existed since 1912, but by no means does it protect everyone. “There are so many people that it is sometimes hard to reach the women-only cars,” Kumi Sasaki says. “And anyway, there are not enough of those cars for every woman to board them.”

Two-thirds of young women aged 20 to 30 years old report having being groped in trains, according to a survey run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and East Japan Railway Co. To make matters worse, the thick crowds make it hard to identify the chikan and prosecute cases.

Thus, even today, after all those years, when Sasaki rides the Yamanote line she feels again “the terror of the 12-years-old me.”

 

Published in: January 2018

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