It was the morning rush and my wife was escorting our five-year-old daughter to kindergarten. As usual, the car was packed: all available seats had been taken by the lucky few further up the line. My wife stood almost in the center of the car. She was able to reach a strap, allowing her to remain upright throughout the journey. As usual, no one offered a seat to her or our five-year-old. So, as usual, our daughter sat at my wife’s feet on the floor of the car.
A suit-clad Japanese man in his sixties was stuck standing in front of them. He told my wife to make our daughter stand up, as it is shabby or undignified (みっともない) for children to be sitting on the floor. She explained that it is exhausting and almost impossible for a five-year-old to remain standing on a moving train. He responded, “No, it’s undignified. Make her stand up.” She explained that it is precisely because of this difficulty that priority seating is designated for moms with young children (along with seniors, the disabled and others). He chided, “Go tell it to those people sitting there. Besides, you’re blocking the door. Get her to stand up.” My wife wondered how the other eight or ten people between them and the door were somehow not blocking the door. She explained that every time they reach a station she does in fact get our daughter to stand up (not only is this a matter of public safety, but it allows them to move to an open spot if one should become available). Unfortunately, reason only angered the man in the suit. He lashed out, “Fine! Let’s go public with this! (出ることでてもいいんだぞ)” My wife replied, “So, I can take your picture and put it on a website or someplace?” “Go ahead!” My wife raised her phone, but before she could click he pushed the phone into her face and darted off the train.
I wonder — with not a little bit of worry — what would have transpired next if they hadn’t just arrived at a station. Backed into a corner by logic, the man felt it necessary to resort to violence. Caught in a potentially indicting situation — by his own misbehavior — he felt it necessary to flee. What if there hadn’t been an escape route?
We could fill more than a few sociology texts with all of the issues that this incident raises about men and women (and children) in Japan. We could talk about the importance of saving face: i.e., why no one said or did anything for the long, long ride to the next stop after the assailant alighted. We could say something about gender relations and power: An older man was willing to flout mores about saving face because he assumed that a younger female would do exactly what he said without argument or escalation. Of course, we can also add this to the too-long list of incidents where frustrated men unleashed violence against women.
Lost at knee-level in our analysis, however, is my daughter trying to get to school every morning.
Some people say that crowded trains are no place for children. I agree 100%. Unfortunately, the fact remains that morning trains around Tokyo are very crowded. Some people say there should be rules against bringing small children (and especially strollers) on the trains during rush hour. The argument is that we already have rules against boarding trains with bicycles because they get in everyone’s way. Therefore, strollers and children should be held to the principle…. I disagree 100%.
Children are human beings. They have the right to ride the train when and wherever they want. No parent wants to bring a toddler or an infant onto a crowded train, but sometimes they have to.
In this way, a human rights issue is at the core of the incident. I’m very proud of my wife for standing up for her and our daughter’s rights to ride the trains in any manner they wish (however shabby that may appear in someone else’s eyes). But more than this, I’m very happy that my wife was not seriously hurt. And I’m most relieved that my five-year-old daughter did not even realize the incident occurred.
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The views expressed in “The Last Word” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of Japan Partnership Co. Ltd. or its partners and sponsors.