|Train travel in Asia can be in a world by itself. One can associate strange behavior anomalies in developing countries but the two most developed countries, Japan and China, are in a category by themselves with their own level of iconic characteristics.
The author rode trains in Japan for three years in the early seventies. The first train ride was on a commuter train from Yokohama which offered Green Car service into Tokyo to be followed by a rush hour pusher train and a taxi ride. The Green Car was posh by any standards. However, the first Green Car experience as a neophyte rider set back western/Japanese relations beginning with an attempt to light a cigarette with a new liquid propane lighter that blew up requiring some quick foot stomping to extinguish the flame. Despite the fact that Japanese men are inveterate smokers, smoking was not allowed on trains though my Japanese neighbor barely peaked over his paper to observe the mayhem. Green Cars, as shown below, are heaven compared to the hell of being pushed into a packed commuter train/subway entering or leaving the big city.
Local commuter trains are an experience like no other. In those days, Japanese men wore their long john underwear from a given autumn day and did not take them off until it was officially spring. Therefore, unseasonably warm weather was addressed by removing the outer clothing and peeling down to the long underwear which was an interesting sight.
We now move from calm local trains to packed cars that require pushers. The Japanese term “oshiya” is derived from the verb “osu” meaning “push” and suffix “-ya” indicating “line of work.” Oshiya ensure every passenger has boarded and does not get caught in the doors. A good oshiya knows there is always room for one more.
Being pushed into a packed train often results in excessive groping. The young Japanese ladies in the office were very explicit about the “under armor” clothing they wore to protect their dignity and foil the roving hands of men near them. Many dirty old Japanese men fantasize about school girls in their uniforms. There is a Vietnamese travel agency that organizes golf tours for middle-aged Japanese men to come to Ho Chi Minh City, play golf and enjoy a dinner at Au Manoir de Khai with each Japanese man accompanied by a young Vietnamese girl dressed in a Japanese student uniform. On occasion, Japanese school girls become even more provocative as illustrated below.
Now here comes the author as a young gaijin “foreigner” guy who was pushed into a train car filled with a sea of Japanese teenage school girls. It was a startling moment of being groped by one or more girl students but also being unable to determine the identity of the school girl groper. Somehow, that train connection never occurred again though the closest experience was when an earthquake hit with a sudden jolt on a train ride.
The author recalls an eight hour “hard seat” train ride with a Chinese/American associate from a remote province in China to Shanghai some 25 years ago. Interestingly, the train conductor demanded our passports in order to board which we had sent on to Shanghai in order to purchase air tickets back to Guangzhou. As we both had Texas Driver licenses, we obediently handed them over. The conductor looked very puzzled as he did not know what they were and had no idea of the country of Texas. However, a few harsh words from my associate and we hopped on board. The moral of that story is harsh words and a show of strength were required to navigate China in the past, if not today as well. “Hard seat” is just what the name implies-a wooden bench with a back. The two “citizens of Texas” fled to the dining car and drank a bottle of cognac while watching the roaches cavort. Train travel in China has changed dramatically since that period of time.
China has developed high speed trains and, in fact, introduced “women only” subway cars in an attempt to curb sexual harassment. Early in the year, Sui-Lee Wee published an article in the Guangzhou Journal which Guilia Marchi subsequently edited for the New York Times. In case you missed either version of the news story, the southern city of Guangzhou may have one of the world’s busiest metro systems. Female commuters in China have long complained that some men take advantage of the packed train cars to conduct inappropriate touching. In a recent survey, one-half of the women questioned affirmed it had happened to them. Therefore, “women only” cars were introduced to protect women in the otherwise crowded rush hours. The signage and decorations on the cars are evident as shown below.
However, these cars are being invaded by men. In fact, the “women only” cars illustrate the legal system of China with too many laws but too little enforcement. Women who complain of sexual harassment risk punishment and, as a result, seldom are any police reports filed. Moreover, offenders are rarely brought to justice. Men continue to line up at the “women only” cars and are either clueless or do not care as the image below depicts two women at the head of the line immediately followed by two men.
In a day, there are some eight million passenger trips on the Guangzhou subway. During rush hours, the average rail car has 310 passengers in it requiring legions of pushers. Weary subway workers, wearing red vests emblazoned with the word “volunteer” say that shortly after the cars were designated for women, they tried to dissuade male passengers from boarding, with little success.
Chivalry never existed In China. There remain vestiges of chivalry in the U.S. and we do not have pushers cramming people on to crowded train cars. On the other hand, sexual exploitation and harassment come in more subtle and insidious ways which need to be addressed.