Generally, Japan is happy when a Japanese word starts to gain a higher level of understanding and usage around the globe. A recent discussion about foreigners appreciating the convenience and conversational tone of natsukashii (“nostalgic”) had Japanese Twitter users beaming with linguistic pride, and Japanese organizations have tried to promote international usage of the terms omotenashi (“hospitality”) and mottainai (“wasteful,” often used with the added implication of “don’t be“) as well.
But right now, another Japanese term is entering the international vernacular: chikan. Referring to men who grope women on crowed trains, chikan can also be used to indicate the act itself, and has been part of the vocabulary of informed Japanophiles and Japan-based expats for some time. However, the word is now part of the UK government’s official online foreign travel advice for Japan, as listed in the “safety and security” section of the country’s entry on government website Gov.uk, which contains the passage: “Reports of inappropriate touching or 'chikan’ of female passengers on commuter trains are fairly common.”
A number of Japanese internet users were saddened to see that not only was the phenomenon deemed worth cautioning travelers about, but that chikan was used as-is, highlighting how the crime is seen as a characteristically Japanese one.
Japanese online reactions included:
“Ugh…Japan should be embarrassed.”
“This is so shameful.”
“Japan: the great nation of perverts.”
“Chikan are such a problem that it’s become and English vocabulary word.”
“It’s true. You can even search for ‘chikan’ on English-language porn sites.”
Others expressed surprise that chikan are apparently so rare overseas that there’s no preexisting English name for them
“Wait, there aren’t any chikan overseas?”
“Maybe it’s because the trains aren’t as crowded in Japan, so chikan are less common?”
“I’m pretty sure there’s an English word for ‘chikan.’ ‘Molest,’ right?”
“Molest,” however, often carries the nuance of outright rape, whereas most chikan, heinous as their actions may be, limit their violations to over-the-clothes touching. “Grope/groper” is a closer fit, but chikan, even in Japanese, carries a strong connotation that the crime took place on a train, or at least some other crowded form of public transportation. “Train groper” helps convey that meaning, but could also be taken as referring to someone who’s sexually attracted to trains, and thus fondling the carriage itself.
“Men who grope women on trains” covers pretty much all the bases (as chikan incidents are predominantly male-on-female crimes), but that’s a much lengthier, clunkier term than chikan. And so, much like how Japanophiles/expats will often say natsukashii rather than one of its English equivalents, chikan is more succinct and easier to parse than its alternatives, and thus the Japanese word is becoming used in English.
There’s one more point worth considering as well. The UK government website’s chikan warning advises “The police advise that you shout at the perpetrator to attract attention and ask a fellow passenger to call the train staff,” and if you’re going to do that, the easiest way to make yourself understood and draw the attention of good Samaritans or the authorities in Japan is to use the Japanese word, which may also be part of the reason the website went with “chikan.”
And so it seems likely that chikan is here to stay in English-language discussions of Japanese society, at least for as long as chikan themselves exist. True, it’s not the proudest linguistic contribution Japan has made to the international community, but, as one online commenter pointed out, it’s something that only Japan deals with frequently enough to have developed its own word for.
Source: Livedoor News/The Page/The Capital Tribune Japan via Hachima Kiko, Gov.uk
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