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Single-sex cars on commuter trains cater to women in Japan

YOKOHAMA, Japan—When Yumuiko Mutsu rushes to the crowded subway station each morning for her 45-minute commute to downtown Tokyo, she finds herself presented with a new option: a cramped subway car without a single man inside.

"This is great," said Mutsu, 23, who works for a TV station. "It has been very stressful to have men so close every morning. I love it."

In early May, seven private railways and two subway operators in the Tokyo area decided to introduce women-only cars in order to cut down on the number of groping incidents on crowded trains.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, the number of cases involving groping or obscene conduct rose from 778 in 1996 to 2,201 in 2004. The department also reported that more than 50 percent of groping cases took place between 7 and 9 a.m., during the morning commute.

A police spokesman said groping has been a problem for many years, but that the number of arrests have gone up because these days most young women carry cell phones capable of sending e-mail and taking pictures, and they're using them to report offenses.

Cars just for women are usually at the front or end of trains, marked with pink plastic seals on their windows and pink signs on the platforms where the cars stop. Women all over the Tokyo suburbs dash to board them.

Some men, however, are protesting.

In the western city of Osaka, which got Japan's first commuter cars for women in 2002, Takahito Yamao started an organization to oppose women-only train cars. The group has 46 members.

"This system is discriminating against men," he said. "We pay the same fare and yet are labeled as evil persons. Not all men are gropers. This is insulting."

On May 22, 20 members of his group gathered in Osaka and 13 in Tokyo to discuss how to persuade train operators to get rid of the women-only cars.

Yamao said that excluding men from some cars won't eradicate the problem of molesters on trains.

The cars are only for women during key commute times, but trains are packed at other times as well.

The organization has sent letters to train companies suggesting that they set up security cameras inside each car, increase the number of guards on platforms and give discounts on off-peak tickets.

Instead, Yamao said, they resorted to the women-only cars, something he sees as a cheap stunt.

"This is just propaganda to show off, as if they are tackling the issue and trying to protect women from gropers. But it hardly costs anything and only involves putting pink seals on the windows and platform."

Cooperation is voluntary. Men can't be punished for boarding the pink-bordered cars, rail officials said.

Some members of Yamao's group take the women-only cars in protest.

To do that, they have to ignore polite requests.

When commuters converge on the Tama Plaza station in Yokohama for their daily dose of sardine-packed bedlam known as morning rush hour, they find a security guard from the Rising Sun Security company holding a placard and repeatedly offering a gentle reminder:

"Good morning. Please be aware that the last car will be for women only. Thank you for your cooperation."

The guard maintains his vigil at this station, just west of Tokyo, from the first train's departure at 5:17 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., when the rush of commuters ebbs.

Most men seem resigned to the new system, though some fear that they could be falsely accused of groping. They also worry that the regular cars will be even more cramped.

"I don't like it," said Hirasawa Tomoaki, 37, who was reading a newspaper while waiting for a train. "Now the car next to women-only is packed. Also, with all those vivid pink stickers, even after 9:30 a.m. when I am allowed to be on it, I don't feel like getting on that women-only car."

The system doesn't please all women, either.

The rules say that elementary school boys can ride on the cars, but that junior high school boys shouldn't. Yamao said he got a letter from one woman who complained that her son would not be able to take the same car with her.

Akiyo Minagi, 32, said she always used to board the next-to-last car on her way to work. Now that the last car is designated for women only, men seem to stare at her when she boards the mixed car as if to ask, "Why are you here?"

But others say the cars have made their commutes better.

Said Megumi Kanou, a woman who works for a foreign chemical company: "I don't have to suffer from the smell of liquor, cigarette smoke or the barbecue dinner which the guy standing next to me had the night before."

And Kumiko Nakajima, 45, a magazine editor, said she doesn't have to be patient anymore with the kind of man who puts pomade on his hair, sleeps leaning on her shoulder and snores.


(Doi is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-WOMENONLY

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