Self-Defense for Japanese Women: Safety Pins or Cell Phones?

Self-Defense for Japanese Women: Safety Pins or Cell Phones?

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Over half of Japanese women say they've been victims of groping, leading to a rise in recommended - and in some cases, controversial - countermeasures.

We’ve documented many of the issues that Japanese women face in daily life. Hiring discriminationRape charges being tossed in clear-cut casesMandatory high heels in the workplace.

But as if all of that weren’t bad enough, women can’t even use public transit without fearing they’ll become victims.

Officially classified as “coercive obscenity” (強制わいせつ; kyousei waisetsu), but more commonly referred to as chikan (痴漢), groping has been a chronic social problem in Japan for decades. Around 2,000 incidents a year are reported, and over 70% of them occur in trains or train stations [1]. Of course, that’s only the number of women who ever file an official police report: surveys of Japanese women put the number who have experienced groping as high as 66%. In response, various municipalities across Japan continue to run anti-groping campaigns aimed, not just at raising awareness over the severity of the crime, but at encouraging people to speak up, and to come to the defense of their fellow citizens.

Anti-groping poster
In this poster, done in an artistic style reminiscent of classic manga, a woman reports a groping, and the police and angry citizens rush to her defense. The footer states, “Groping is a crime,” and implores people: “‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Are you okay?’ The courage of these simple words could save someone.”

Unfortunately Japan, much like the US, puts its focus more on telling women how to dress and comport themselves than it does on raising men so they don’t become rapists or gropers. In a recent post on Twitter, Constitutional Party candidate Saitou Atsuko, noting that she herself has been groped on the subway, commented: “I often hear people put out opinions such as, ‘It’s because you were lax in your clothing, or your attitude,” or pronouncements like, ‘No one would target a Plain Jane (or Old Maid) like you.”

斉藤あつこ Atsuko Saitoh on Twitter: “電車で痴漢に遇いました。よく「服装や態度にスキがあったのでは」という意見や「お前みたいな不細工(orおばさん)狙わないよ」という発言を見聞きします今日の私はこの服装で車内に立っていました。この顔をした51歳女性です。 これが日本社会の現実の一つです #withyou #日本女性よ立ち上がろう / Twitter”

電車で痴漢に遇いました。よく「服装や態度にスキがあったのでは」という意見や「お前みたいな不細工(orおばさん)狙わないよ」という発言を見聞きします今日の私はこの服装で車内に立っていました。この顔をした51歳女性です。 これが日本社会の現実の一つです #withyou #日本女性よ立ち上がろう

These lingering attitudes came out earlier this year in a poster from the Kanko School Uniform Company, which warned women, “That short skirt you consider ‘cute’ could entice a sex crime.” The ad brought a heap of criticism on the company on Twitter[2], and it was forced to retract the ad and issue an apology. But really, the core issue is that the ad campaign went from conception to implementation unopposed.

Such attitudes mean, sadly, that women are forced to look for reactive strategies to handle the high probability that they will be assaulted on the subway. One such idea recently made waves on Twitter, with some calling the “groping prevention” strategy a crime in and of itself.

The Safety Pin Strategy?

The controversial suggestion was summarized recently by Big Globe News on its KamoKamo site, a subsite dedicated to distinguishing truth from urban legends. The initial tweet was posted by user AkubiHarubiyori, who drew a comic about the time she was assaulted, and the advice her health teacher gave her: carry a safety pin, and when someone touches you without your permission, jab ’em with it!


In a later tweet, the author clarified the context in which she received the advice:

あくまで昔こういうお話があった、という漫画になります この当時はスマホもなくケータイもカメラ機能がまだまだ弱い時代でしたのでこのようなお話があったという経験談です 傷害罪だ、やりすぎだ、出来るわけない、等の意見を頂いておりますが、このやり方を強制するものではありません

It should be kept in mind that this manga tells a story from the past. It’s a story of my personal experience that occurred in an era where there were no smart phones, and phone cameras were relatively weak. People are telling me that this is assault, it’s overboard, they could never do it, etc., but this isn’t something that was forced on anyone.

As of the writing of this article, the author’s tweet has received 166,000 likes and has over 84,000 retweets. To say it struck a chord would be an understatement.

Of the reactions highlighted by BigGlobe, the ones with the most likes are tweets that are either sympathetic to the safety pin strategy. Some women, such as madoka_ka, even shared stories of similar tactics they’ve used:

[Note: Original tweet deleted]

What a great teacher! I used to push the lead out a little on a mechanical pencil to stab people (this is a distant memory). I figured a cutter would be excessive self-defense, and plus it’d be dangerous to use on a full train, so I went to school gripping a mechanical pencil. It’s acceptable for a student to own a mechanical pencil. I recall victims decreasing as perverts learned their lesson.

Naturally, other commenters brought up the possibility of false accusation – i.e., that someone could prick the wrong person, and literally brand a man who hadn’t done anything wrong. User toku_no1, in a tweet that received 17,000 likes, sparked a long thread recounting how he’d been pricked due to someone else’s actions, and how he “didn’t speak up because a pinprick would be used as proof, and I’d be railroaded and lose everything.”

The fear of false accusations is not specific to Japan. Indeed, its specter was the subject of debate during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when hashtags such as #BelieveHer and #BelieveSurvivors trended on Twitter. The specter of false accusation may carry a little more weight in Japan, however, where “hostage justice” – keeping people accused of crimes locked up and subject to constant interrogation until they confess – is a serious problem.

There have indeed been some well-publicized cases of false accusation, including several in which women later confessed to making accusations in an attempt to extort money from men. However, there’s little in the way of actual statistics showing that false accusations are a rampant problem. And, as discussed above, there’s plenty of data showing that underreporting of groping is the more serious social issue.

The issue of how women can protect themselves took center stage this year during coverage of the Yamaguchi Maho incident. As regular readers will remember, after the idol star was assaulted by two men in her apartment, her management company, AKS, not only failed to take any action but forced Yamaguchi to apologize on stage for “causing a commotion.”

In its faulting attempts to apologize, AKS said in a statement that it would look at measures it could take to better ensure the personal safety of its stars, such as giving each member a “crime alert bell.” The remark was roundly criticized on Twitter as a half-hearted measure that was too little, too late.

However, in the wake of those remarks, people began noticing that a digital version of a crime alert bell already existed. The “Digital Police” (デジポリス) application, developed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department in 2016, contains an “Anti-Crime Buzzer” function that lets users signal they’ve been the victim of groping. The app emits a sound at the phone’s maximum volume[3]. It also sends an e-mail and (optionally) location information to a pre-registered address.

The app also has a “Groping Repulsion” feature that displays the words “Groping. Please Help” in large, white letters against a red background, making it easier for women to receive help from fellow passengers. The app will also scream “Please stop” if the user taps the message on the screen.

In the wake of the Yamaguchi incident, this feature has received extra focus, and Digi-Police has enjoyed a renewed popularity that’s rare for a government-produced smartphone app. Users on Twitter have praised the app as being “more useful than an anti-crime bell.” In January alone, the app exceeded 13,000 downloads, a six-fold increase compared to previous months.

Not everyone’s a raving fan. Some women have posted comments saying they’d still find the app hard to use, and that, even if they did use it, they fear help – if it came at all – would come too late. In the end, any app is just a tool that refuses to address the real root of the problem. As Twitter user oko196okko put it:

よこちゃん on Twitter: “この手の話にはよくあるコメント。世の中の多くの人が、それを当たり前って思っています。ということは、オトコって自分を抑えられないんだぞって言ってるみたいなもんじゃないでしょうか。そういう刷り込まれた意識を変える必要があるんじゃないかな。防犯ブザーが鳴ったら助けに行きますか? / Twitter”


…But it also seems like people are saying, “Men can’t control themselves.” This attitude that’s been put into people’s brains need to change as well. If an anti-crime buzzer wails, will you respond to help?

“Pervert Radar” Developers Seek to Protect Exam Takers


[1] 都内「痴漢被害」7割が電車や駅で起きている.

[2] 防犯ポスターに「短いスカートが性犯罪を誘発」 批判受け菅公学生服が謝罪.

[3] 頼れる!警視庁の防犯アプリ ダウンロード16万件突破.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy