Women-only cars on Japan’s railways have existed in some form or other for more than 50 years, with “hana densha” (lit. “flower train”) carriages originally being introduced as a way of keeping female students safe from the advances of lecherous men during the peak hours. Now considered by many to be a vital part of many inner-city rail services, the train car closest to the driver’s cabin is often reserved for females only and is clearly marked both at boarding locations on the platform and inside the train itself.

Many unwitting foreign males have no doubt hopped on board these carriages during rush hours without realising it. Although foreigners usually escape relatively unscathed, when native Japanese men dare to cross that pink line and invade the sanctity of the josei senyou sharyou (women-only carriage), more often than not they are berated by the women on board until they alight or switch cars.

But is it actually illegal for a man to ride in the women-only car? Surely when other carriages are packed to the rafters, men shouldn’t be forced to squeeze in when the first car would be much less tortuous? Yahoo! Japan News spoke with legal professional Ikki Hashimoto as well as representative from Japan Rail to get the facts about men’s rights when it comes to riding the pink car.

Take almost any train into the city during the morning rush and you’ll almost always hear a least one announcement to passengers thanking them for reserving the first car for female passengers only. Paying close attention to these announcements, however, rather than set-in-stone rules they appear to be – as is often the case in Japan – more of a polite request than anything else.

“The first car is reserved for female passengers. We kindly ask all of our customers for their understanding and cooperation.”

But are men, in fact, obliged to cooperate with this request? If faced with the choice between stepping onto the women-only car or literally being shoved into one of the other, busier cars by a member of station staff, are men bound by law to choose the latter? Lawyer Ikki Hashimoto suggests that this is not the case:

“In short, although the system is based upon the cooperation and trust of (male) passengers, men will not be forcibly removed from [women-only] cars. In other words, what it comes down to is male passengers’ discretion. This is not a legally-enforced rule.”

With this in mind, Yahoo! Japan approached Japan Rail to ask for additional clarification. When asked whether male passengers may use women-only carriages, a representative responded carefully, saying, “Our official position is that we politely ask male passengers to refrain from doing so.”

It would seem that JR is in the somewhat awkward position of struggling to meet conflicting requests from its customers.

“We have been asked by some of our male passengers to abolish the ‘women-only’ car system, but on the other hand we have a lot of female passengers who are calling for us to increase the number of routes that offer women-only carriages.”

With groping and molestation on trains a serious problem in urban areas — particular on lines such as JR’s Saikyo line which runs between Saitama Prefecture and Tokyo and one of the few routes whose trains have CCTV cameras installed — one can understand the need to provide women with a space where they can travel safely. Packed into carriages and pressed against strangers for sometimes up to an hour at a time, the potential for idle hands to wander – particularly late at night when business people pour out of pubs and bars and cram onto the last few trains home – is clearly great. But with the majority of male passengers being perfectly decent human beings who would be just as offended by acts of groping as any female rider, are we punishing the many for the actions of an unsavoury few by removing their right to ride? Perhaps instead of barring men from using these carriages altogether we ought to restore trust and put emphasis on the moral obligation that both men and women have to help prevent and refuse to permit such abhorrent behaviour as groping? By denying men the right to board a particular carriage during busy times, are we labeling them all potential offenders? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below.

In the meantime, at the risk of setting the cat amongst the pigeons, it would appear that — provided you can handle the glares, comments and potential confrontations from extremely irked female passengers — you’re (at least legally) free to ride that car all you like, guys. We can’t promise you that it’ll be the most pleasant of journeys, though.

Source: Yahoo! Japan News