Politics of Japan: As Told From Its Public Transportation System

CW: mentions of sexual harassment and suicide

For seven years of my life, I spent three hours on the train everyday commuting to and from school. Spending time on the train was a big part of my life, and if I was not frantically cramming for an exam or trying to catch up on some sleep, I was observing everything, the people, the advertisements, the conductors. At the time I did not think much of it as I was so consumed with school, but as I look back on those seven years, I noticed that the Japanese public transportation system says a lot about the country itself.

Hop onto a train in Japan and you’ll get a first glimpse of our nation. It’s clean, efficient, safe, quiet, and if you’re a foreigner (or a “foreign-looking person” like myself) everyone will turn to stare at you the moment you step on as if you’ve just committed a major faux pas for simply existing.

Every morning I left my house at 6am, caught the train at 6:09, transferred twice, took the bus, and finally made it to school. Every morning I saw the same people, with the same school uniforms or suits, the same look on their faces. The construction worker on his way home from his night shift, cracking open a cold one, while the “salary man” sitting across from him was on his way to work, sipping his canned coffee. The ojiichan (grandpa) turning his sports newspaper to his favorite porno section and occasionally eyeing me to make sure I saw what he was seeing, as if it somehow excited him.

This was all part of my life, my daily routine, part of the country I grew up in.

The "women only car" and Japan’s inability to combat sexual harassment:

Public transportation, specifically subways and trains, is the most common method of commuting for Japanese people. As a result, in heavily populated areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, trains and subways easily become overcrowded and chikan, acts of public sexual molestation, are unfortunately highly prevalent. "In a survey conducted in the early 2000s by Tokyo Metropolitan Police and JR Railway Company, two-thirds of women aged 20-40 reported being touched, called chikan(a term in Japanese for both the guilty person and the act of touching someone without their consent), in crowded trains."

There are numerous posters and signs, even announcements that clearly state 「痴漢は犯罪です」chikan is a crime, and yet almost everyday I hear of another incident.

So what was Japan's solution to combat sexual harassment on trains?

Creating a women only car for women to feel safer and avoid contact with men. Men are not legally prohibited from entering these cars, however they are encouraged to avoid boarding them especially during rush hour.

The car was originally also introduced to help women with children and toddlers board crowded trains more easily, as the entrance and exit of the women only train is located closer to elevators so mothers with strollers can easily access it. But, doesn't this just further enforce the stereotype that taking care of children is a duty that rests upon women? Another issue with the "women only" car is that it is not inclusive of non-binary persons, transgenders, and people of other sexual orientations.

In middle school, both my sister and I were victims of stalking. It got so bad we even went to the police station but they told us they could not do anything unless things got physical. I used the women only car everyday because as a scared 13 year old, the women only car was a safe haven. But do I think it does the job in eradicating sexual harassment? Definitely not.

Sure, by putting up posters that call out chikans, creating a women only car, and making it so that you can't turn off the camera sound makes it harder for people to commit acts of sexual harassment, but it definitely does not address the root cause. (Fun fact: In Japan, you can't turn off the camera sound on any phone or device to prevent people from secretly taking pictures or recording others, that's how bad tousatsu the act of secretly recording others, in Japan is.)

We do not educate our youth about consent and why you're not supposed to grope women or secretly record them. We do not have enough laws that combat sexual harassment, and most importantly we’ve stigmatized the topic of sexual harassment so much that victims are unable to find safe spaces to speak up and seek the support they need, which brings me to my next topic.

Another issue Japan fails to combat is its alarmingly high rates of suicide amongst the youth:

It truly breaks my heart to say this, but it was not rare for my daily commute to be suddenly interrupted by a jinshinjiko, a human body collision with a train. Of course not all of the collisions were suicide attempts, and some were incidents of people accidentally falling into the train tracks or an intoxicated person stumbling in. However, many of the times I would get home after my train was delayed, only to check the news and see a brief headline that mentioned the cause: suicide.

What was Japan’s approach to tackle this issue: put up barriers to prevent people from being able to fall in or jump in.

You see their solution was to make it harder for people to take their own life instead of addressing the core problems within our society that makes suicide rates so high. What about overworking employees to the point of death? What about blatant racism and xenophobia that is so predominant within our society? These are the conversations we need to be having. These are the topics we need to be raising awareness about and actively trying to change them.

The issue with Japan: we don’t address the problem, we avoid it.

I’m a proud Japanese. I am grateful to be born in a country that spends 1/3 of its budget on social welfare, a nation that is incredibly safe, a nation with some of the politest people in the world. And the best public transportation system in. the. world.

But I am also not blind to the many many flaws of our country that are deeply embedded within the roots of our nation.

That’s why I started Blossom. To create a space where we could address these issues and have important conversations that have been long overdue. Starting conversations is just the beginning, and it’s up to us to take action as well. Speak up, educate yourself, and take action.

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