Chikan – the Japanese idea of groping

By Jacob Lilley

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Chikan has been a dark cloud above Japan for decades. Victims are left accountable while predators run amok. Japanese illustrator Nago has witnessed Chikan firsthand while living in the hustle and bustle of inner-city Tokyo and is now using her art to challenge it.

As well as displaying her own accounts of groping, Nago has taken influence from the experiences of her friends and families too. Through this indirect version of storytelling, her illustrations are a powerful means of demonstrating the injustice that victims face every day:

“The first step is to know what’s going on. The Japanese public pretends not to see molestation, some are unaware, others don’t want to be involved. Dealing with assault takes time, and Japan is busy.” 

Trying to expand perceptions of sexual assault in a society oblivious to its physical and physiological effects is challenging. Chikan isn’t a typical topic to discuss. Instead, many people seem to accept it as an inevitable – maybe even acceptable – part of society.

“The attitude towards Chikan is that touching the body won’t hurt you, and none will die. So many people in Japan don’t think molestation is a crime.”

Despite this belief, groping and molestation can have serious effects. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction and agoraphobia can occur once someone has been touched without consent.

Without proper public support, the attention of law enforcement and political policy doesn’t amount to much – tiresome, half-hearted ideas that don’t recognise the full extent of the problem.

The first real solution, female-friendly carriages, was introduced in 2009. This measure sounds good on paper, but in early 2016 on the Chiyoda line, a group of men boarded these carriages to protest that segregating the male population was an act of direct discrimination. Yet women who don’t opt to board these private carriages are more susceptible to attacks, and with extra carts only considered viable during busy rush hours, those who need to travel at other times are put back in harm’s way.

Another method introduced to counter the problem is an app designed to alert others to molestation taking place around them. Although a high percentage of victims experience Chikan on commutes, groping can happen anywhere, including at work and on the street. This is why 70% of women living in Japan are said to have experienced Chikan in one way or another, with few reporting the incidents officially. 1750 reported events occurred in 2017; however, actual figures on Chikan are unclear because many victims remain silent in fear of judgement from the law, public view and the media:

“Victims are always thrown away because there is only one victim’s story. Not everyone turns a blind eye, but more people abandon victims rather than support them. Chikan is just a small problem for them.”

As media companies became more aware of Chikan as a social issue, the victims’ stories still came second to allegations that accusations had led to the deaths of those accused. Some were believed to have committed suicide; others had suffered accidents when fleeing the scene. This is another way that the women have been dissuaded from coming forward, with the media turning the guilty parties into the victims.

“No one believes the innocent, victims are beaten down and called stupid. It’s creating more damage.” 

The issue of false accusation scares is becoming so prominent in Japan that insurance companies are cashing in. Japan Shogaku Tanki Hoken offers a 590 yen (£4.44) fee per month or 6,400 (£49.65) per year plan. The idea is simple: instead of running, buy the insurance and call a lawyer. And yet the number of false accusations is far outweighed by the true accounts and the stories that are never told.

It’s easy to remain oblivious or act dumb, and it’ll take the actions of people like Nago to change the perception of Chikan in the country and worldwide. Although in Japanese, her illustrations can be understood globally and that’s what makes her work so special. A stand against government, police and society for turning a blind eye for such a long time. Another example of art challenging culture in an attempt to redefine people’s attitudes.

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