It was creeping into the wee hours of Saturday morning, and the party that had begun Friday night was starting to wind down. I looked around at my friends crowded into the tiny Japanese apartment, then at Yuki, who lived in my direction, and asked her そろそろ行く？ (“Shall we leave soon?”). She checked the time on her phone and shook her head. まだだよ。(“Not yet.”). I was puzzled because she looked as sleepy as I felt, but when I pressed her, she just said that it wasn’t a safe time to walk home.
I looked around the room and realized that no one else was leaving, either. Among the mix of Japanese and American exchange students, at least two were softly snoring with their backs leaning against the wall. Everyone else was just talking quietly amongst the remains of a few chuuhai cans and an empty potato chip bag. In this quiet rural town in Yamanashi prefecture, dotted by rice paddies and grape and peach farms, I couldn’t imagine it ever being anything other than safe. But once the dark began to melt into early dawn and the sky began to lighten, Yuki’s eyes met mine, we said our goodbyes to the others and headed home.
When you visit Japan, it’s hard to believe that it’s anything but safe. But while living in Japan as a student, I heard a few more times that the wee hours (between 3 am and dawn usually) were not a safe time to walk home, even in Yamanashi.
–So, you might ask, as many have asked me before, is Japan safe?
The short answer is, yes, Japan is relatively safe. Crime rates are much lower than they are in the US, pickpockets are not as big of a concern as in many countries in Europe, and there are police boxes or kouban 交番 (mini police stations) close to wherever you are. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use common sense! This post is intended to briefly detail some of the main safety concerns to think about before you live in Japan, and to help you understand – rather than fear – the unknown.
Remember how I said that pickpockets are not as common as they are in Europe? This is true. When I go to Japan, even when I’m on a crowded train, I do not hide my cash in a small wallet strapped against my skin under my clothing. I do, however, keep an eye on my purse and any other bags I have with me. Just because it’s not common doesn’t mean it isn’t a possibility.
My husband’s classmate knew someone who used to pickpocket people on the train for the fun of it, because he was bored and rich and kind of a jerk, mostly because people are so trusting and are used to carrying around large amounts of cash. Credit cards aren’t as prominent in Japan as in the US, so carrying cash is common. Also, it’s common to be jostled against other people in a train, and that makes it easier for someone to slip a hand into your bags. Foreign faces can attract attention, and that may make you a target. Or it might completely scare the pickpocket off. In any case, being smart about your belongings is key no matter where you travel.
However, no one in my acquaintance has ever been robbed in Japan, and I know two people who have had their wallets returned, contents fully intact, to a police box hours after it was lost. I still would not recommend leaving your purse on a chair at a restaurant while you go to the bathroom, but that just seems like common sense to me.
Chikan or Groping on Trains
Sexual harassment exists in many forms, but one that is unique to Japan is called chikan 痴漢, or groping, (usually) on a train. Japan’s primary public transportation is by train. It’s super convenient, but it can also get very crowded. On a crowded train, people press up against each other and everyone moves when the train hits a curve. But, when so many people are crowded together, men may use the opportunity to grope girls.
So what do you do if this happens to you? It might be difficult to determine if it is actually intentional groping, or a mistake when the train swings. You might think that it is just your imagination, and try to brush it off. It’s also very difficult to prove groping as a crime. Thus, many people are discouraged from reporting it. However, if you are being groped and you want to take a stand, there are steps you can take. There is a campaign to eliminate chikan from trains, supported by the police and government officials, but it needs to be reported to have an effect.
What steps can you take?
- If you are groped, try to grab the offender’s hand. Catching someone in the act is the best way to prove an incident.
- If you have grabbed his hand, hold it in the air and shout 痴漢です！ “Chikan desu!” (or even just “Chikan”). Now you have identified the suspect to people around you.
- Try to find a witness. From experience, finding a witness is hard. It’s hard to observe chikan on a crowded train, and even if someone did see, they won’t often want to come forward. You can try asking 誰か見ましたか？ “Dare ka mimashita ka?” Having a witness is useful for proving your case further.
- The final step is to bring them to the train station staff or the police, and make a report. They will understand if you say “chikan” and you can probably use hand signals to explain.
- The groper may run away, but even if they do, you should report the incident to the train station staff. If you can give a description that is useful, but it will be hard to prosecute without a witness or a suspect.
So why report it if no one will take me seriously? This is a valid question. Chikan has been a problem for years, and Japanese girls deal with it constantly. But the important thing is that they often don’t report it. If people accept it as daily life, it’s hard to crack down on it. So, if you report it, it encourages the police and government officials to take steps to stop it.
How do I avoid chikan? A great question. It’s harder to answer, but being aware of your surroundings and using common sense can help. If you must stand and ride alone on a crowded train, take the women’s only car, or try to stand near other women. If you are surrounded by male passengers, look at the other passengers around you. Japanese people tend not to look around at other people near them in trains, because it’s just awkward to stare at someone you don’t know and might soon be thrown against when the train hits a curve. But I find that if I, as a foreigner, do it, they either move slightly away or turn away. They know you are looking at them. My theory is, that if they know you are looking at them and see their faces, they are less likely to try anything shady. Also, the intimidating foreigner factor. It’s just a theory, but I have yet to be groped whilst employing this strategy.
If you’re a guy, you might be worried that you may be accused of chikan. It’s not very likely, and I have never met anyone who has been falsely accused, but if you find yourself in a crowded train and want to make sure that everyone understands you are not a creepy pervert, try these steps: 1) put your bag between your feet on the floor or on the bag rack over the seats, 2) put both of your hands on the subway hand holds (so there’s no mistake about where your hands are), 3) if you are mistakenly accused of chikan, don’t run away and don’t apologize (this can be seen as an admission of guilt), but speak with police or the station attendant and try to explain that they are mistaken (僕は)痴漢ではない。”(Boku wa) chikan de wa nai.” (I am not a groper.)
Underwear thievery? You read that right. In Japan, clothes dryers are rare, and you hang your clothes, unmentionables and all, outside to dry. And at some point you may notice an empty spot on your little drying rack, where your favorite pair of Victoria’s Secret underwear used to hang, before some person (who must be out of their mind) came by and stole your underwear right off your balcony. Especially if you are female. It really happens. Not very often. And it’s not that expensive to replace underwear. But then you think that somewhere some guy (it’s probably a guy) has your underwear. And then you try not to imagine what he could possibly want them for.
How do you avoid underwear thievery? Live on the second floor or higher, or dry your unmentionables exclusively inside your apartment. Chances are more likely than not it won’t happen, but if it weirds you out a little, just dry them inside.
I had no idea this was a thing, but then I had a friend who had her underwear stolen. I also had a friend who sold her underwear when she was in high school. Yep, that’s a thing. The cuter you are, according to my source, the higher price your unmentionables will fetch.
You could always just get a part time job. I guess the underwear thieves just don’t want to pay. Go figure.
Let’s Go to My Place
At this point, I want to throw in an observation that took me by surprise when I lived in Japan. In Japanese culture, visiting friends’ homes is not as common as it is in the US. So, most people will go on dates or meet friends outside of the home. Although we had small parties at (usually male) student’s apartments, I was never alone one-on-one with a guy in my apartment or his. In my personal experience, Japanese guys equate girls inviting guys over to their apartment with an unspoken agreement to have sex. This may not be true for everyone in Japan, but it’s the prevailing consensus amongst my Japanese friends.
Love hotels have become a common place for a “rendezvous” in Japan, but even to an American an invitation to a love hotel is pretty unambiguous. As for inviting a guy to your apartment? I’m not sure that all American girls would interpret or intend that as an explicit invitation. I have guy friends who I would invite over with no such expectations on either side,
plus they would not risk the wrath of my husband. But even when I was single, I had friends – male and female – over to hang out, study, or whatever. If I was hanging out solo with a guy in the US, I wouldn’t think much about it.
I mention this mainly because I have had friends who found themselves in compromising situations (at a guy’s apartment or their own) where they didn’t feel empowered to get out because they didn’t understand the implication in the invitation, and were afraid of being rude. Japanese university culture also involves a lot of nomikai 飲み会or drinking parties, and just as with any country, alcohol consumed at a nomikai can alter anyone’s judgement.
This is one of those subtle, unspoken rules that you might not even think about before going to Japan. Understanding it will help you to avoid misunderstandings. Japanese people are generally welcoming, friendly, and kind, and if you told someone you felt uncomfortable they would most likely work to change that. But no matter where you go, it’s a good idea to be aware of the situations you might face. Again, use common sense in your interactions, no matter what country you’re in.
While violent crime rates are much lower than in the US, violent crimes still occur. So, as I mentioned before, it’s important to use common sense. Walking home alone in the wee hours before daylight, hanging out alone in dark alley ways, or being too trusting of strangers you meet are probably bad ideas, just as they would be in New York City.
Guns are illegal in Japan (you need a hard-to-get special permit just for a hunting rifle), which brings down the gun violence numbers drastically. Knives and pepper spray and other similar weapons are also not easily acquired. The lack of weapons keeps crime rates low, but there still are cases of murder, rape, and other violent crimes.
Japanese news doesn’t talk about crimes in as much detail as they do in the states, perhaps because the Japanese populace isn’t as desensitized to violence as we are in the US. It’s difficult to get all of the details by watching the news because they censor a lot of the information, and people who speak on camera always have their faces covered by a mosaic and speak through a voice changer.
It often seems like the violent crimes that do occur are very sensational, perhaps because there are not many of them. One example is a Kobe middle school student in the 1990s who killed two other children (one of whom he decapitated), who has been released and since written a book about the murders, and who fascinates my friends and internet trolls alike to this day. Another example is a girl who was kidnapped and forced to live with her university student captor for two years before she finally escaped. There are also cases of foreigners murdered by Japanese, such as a British woman who was murdered by a student she tutored privately.
I mention these cases not to imply that Japan has a bunch of strange and unusual crimes, but because although Japan is safer than many other countries in the world, violent crimes still happen. So it’s best to keep that in mind no matter where you travel, so that you stay safe and enjoy all the amazing places that you explore.
When you visit or live in Japan, you feel very safe, and rightly so, but you should never leave common sense at home. You may notice that a lot of the safety tips are directed at women. Women face higher danger no matter what country you are in, but men can be at risk too. I hope that more than anything this post has given you a better understanding of the answer to the question, “How safe is Japan?”
If you have any questions about safety in Japan, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer! If you have anything to add, please comment below!