Beginning May 9 , nine commuter lines in the greater Tokyo area began offering women-only train cars in response to the growing number of women being groped by men in the trains. The number of incidents reached 2,201 in 2004, up from 778 in 1996. Each line has designated one car from each train during the morning rush as being for women only.
These are not the first women-only cars in Japanese rail history, but to me this time the impact seems larger than ever before.
Why? Well, because now my main line is employing one such car. Not only that, the car designated for women only is none other than my car, the one I have wrenched myself into every day for almost a decade. The one that matches my exit point perfectly.
So now I must slide 10 meters down and take the next car. No problem, right? Except every other guy in my car must do the same — with the end result being that there are two cars' worth of men trying to squeeze themselves into one car. It takes more than an attendant with white gloves to pack us all in. It takes a battering ram.
In the past, I was at least guaranteed a strap to hang on and believed, if I lived clean and prayed hard, God would sometimes reward me with a seat. Now I make far simpler supplications and ask only for enough air to breathe. And that I won't get crushed by the other wriggling bodies around me. Talk about being groped.
The other day, with my face mashed against the inside window, I could not help but spy the women in the rear car. Most had seats. Some stood. And a few were ballroom dancing. Or at least they could have if they wanted. They had enough room.
For the record, I am not pro-groper. Gropers are criminals and deserve to be groped themselves by the long arm of the law.
Nor would I be against the train lines establishing single cars for snifflers, snorers, college boys with BO, salarymen with gas, or any foul combination thereof. Or for any group that makes life a little harder for all commuters.
But for women only? Somehow I feel this is unfair. I feel I am suffering for someone else's crime.
So, rather than cars for only women, I suggest cars for only gropers. This protects women and serves to isolate the rightful problem.
"You cannot be serious," my wife says.
"And why not? If a man is stupid enough to molest women on a train, he might also be stupid enough to fall for this. Plus he would only have to reach such moronic heights once. For the cops could accept riding on that car as a confession and arrest the entire lot."
She gives me a look that says if reaching moronic heights were a crime, I might be public enemy No. 1.
"Why don't you simply walk two cars down, instead of one? Or even three cars? The crowd is bound to even out."
"But then I would be farther from my exit."
"So? Which is worse? Walking for 30 seconds? Or imitating a sardine for most of an hour?"
"That's not the point," I tell her. "The point is whether women should receive preferential treatment during rush hour. The only crime the great majority of men have committed is being born male."
"And some women might forgive you that. Yet, there are at least 2,201 men who are not innocent. Probably many more."
I argue that the 2,201 number reflects incidents, not gropers. Who knows? Maybe we are all victims of just one very active man — sort of a supergroper.
From her face I can tell that she hadn't thought of that. Or that she can't believe I have thought of that. Or that anyone could think of that.
"All right," she says. "I know you have a more serious solution. Let's hear it."
I nod. "Mine is a simple idea, one that the train lines are gonna love. I recommend that women-only cars be continued, but that the females using them be required to pay an extra fee."
"But . . ."
"Then we'll see how many women are truly worried about gropers and how many are just taking advantage of the commuter lines' benevolence."
"That's . . ."
"The train companies will rake in a little loot as well."
". . . discrimination!"
So? And women-only train cars are not?
Of course, the sexes are not really equal and never have been. From politics to business to whatever, it's a man's world. That's not the way it should be, nor maybe the way it always will be, but that's the way it is, especially in Japan, where the "unfair" sex has traditionally been spoiled by the fairer one.
Like many other surface "solutions" to deep-rooted problems, single-sex train cars merely treat a symptom and not the illness. It may reduce the number of gropings, but will have no effect whatsoever on groper mentality. Only two things will eliminate that.
Better anti-groper education. . . . This has continued for some time without much effect, perhaps because of that traditional spoiling or perhaps because much of it is lip service.
And stiffer groper penalties. . . . Like making gropers serve their prison sentences with both hands handcuffed to a commuter rail. Or tattooing the word "groper" to their foreheads. Or perhaps plastering their photos inside the trains in place of those cleavage-popping honeys who advertise manga, photos that, incidentally, might encourage groping just a bit.
"What you should do," my wife suggests, "is just wait. The crowds per car will eventually even out. Besides, you have no answer either. You're only 'groping' for ideas like everyone else."
Fortunately, such effort bears no penalty. Not even a punishing train ride if I'm wrong.
Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".