Japanese man publicly fights grope charge

After women started speaking out, some men now fear false accusations of public assault.

The weekday rush hour subway in Tokyo is a blur - a Malthusian jostle of dark-suited salarymen, bustling businesswomen, kids, shopping bags, and briefcases. At peak hours, some subway cars reach 160 percent of capacity. Japanese women say the crowded cars have often provided open season to "grope" - that crude men use a lack of standing space as license to touch them deliberately in all the wrong places.

Ten years ago, women started to fight back. This took some courage, since females were brought up "to just take it and be subservient," as one woman puts it. But the cause caught on. Some train lines now offer "women only" cars to curb what has been a serious problem. For males who are caught, or accused, there's increasing social stigma: lost jobs, broken families, shame.

Hideki Kato can attest. In the Japanese context, where "face" is so important, he has taken the unusual step of coming forward to fight publicly a groping conviction he spent nine months in jail denying. Mr. Kato, in fact, is the first man convicted of indecent assault to reveal his name and face. Most Japanese men when accused will admit guilt and pay a fine.

The whole subject is "a Japan thing," an official of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan says wanly. This week the FCCJ gave a forum to Kato. "I'm here revealing my face; I'm here to say I didn't do this," said the tall, husky former PhD candidate, occasionally shaking his fist.

Kato is part of a new men's group, "Network of false convictions regarding groping," that says a prosecutorial zeal to convict offenders is overwhelming and impossible to fight, and has ruined their lives. Of the dozen or so men in the group, only one, a Mr. Okita, would give his name - and only after the girl who accused him admitted to lying.

Kato, by contrast, now out on bail and living at home, is appealing to the Japanese Supreme Court - which has never taken a groping case.

Veteran Japan watchers at the FCCJ had no idea whether Kato is innocent. But they say he has a fair story to tell - one that rarely gets heard in this society - that illumines problems in assessing guilt and innocence in the midst of a teeming mass of commuters.

Kato was on the Tonzei line going home from his former job as a human-resources worker. He was holding a heavy bag under his right arm. There were only "about five centimeters" between everyone on the car. At one point a 13-year-old girl next to him started screaming. A university student immediately pointed to Kato and accused him of groping the girl.

He was whisked off the train at the next stop, and into what, under US justice, would be a nightmare of lack of due process and standards of evidence. He says the Japanese police failed to take a statement, to inform him of his rights, or to allow him to communicate for eight days. He was simply asked to confess.

Legal experts here point out the local system is based on presumption of guilt, and that a confession makes things much easier. Pay $500 to $1,000 and you go free.

The groping phenomenon and the current system of justice has spawned a small industry of bribes and extortion. Small mafias have been found that "set up" subway riders - where men are accused and pay off "husbands" or "boyfriends" right on the subway platforms, not wanting to risk a ride to the police station.

"The first thing I was told when I got here was to watch out not to get in any situation that could be misconstrued," says an Australian who started a job in Tokyo last year. "I was told to always keep my hands in view."

Foreign nationals have had trouble here. Two years ago, an Italian was pulled off a train and escorted to a police box. He didn't speak Japanese, and first thought it was a passport issue; he found himself locked up overnight, and told the next day he would have to pay a $500 fine for a molesting charge - which he refused, and denied. No call was made to his Japanese wife for 12 hours, who had become frantic.

The Italian man was then told if he didn't confess, he would have to wait in jail until a prosecutor decided the charges. Under Japanese law, that can take eight days. So he did what many Japanese men do - he confessed, and got out of jail.

Many women's groups, while sympathetic with those suffering false accusations, point out Japanese statistics showing that groping continues at high levels on trains and subways around the country. They don't want justifiably angry men subverting what is a far deeper problem between the sexes.

On the Higashiyama subway line in Nagoya, a line that now has a women's only car marked by a pink sticker, there are still some 20-plus cases a year. That figure suggests to experts a real figure of groping that is far higher.

"Japanese men have been getting away with this for many years, and I think I've seen some instances over the years," says a Canadian Japan scholar who spends summers in Tokyo. "It is disgusting."

As for Kato - he wants the university student who first accused him to be investigated. "He accused me before anyone knew what happened or talked to the girl; how would he have known of the crime, unless it was him?"

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