Things I don’t understand about Japan: Women Only Cars on Trains in Tokyo

Womens Only car in Tokyo Japan

What is it? A women only car is exactly what it sounds like, a car where only women (and young boys and old men) can ride. They exist for safety and comfort reasons. Every morning, people commute into Tokyo for work. Those are the picture you see – where station attendants are shoving people onto trains.

As expected, being shoved up against and surrounded by a bunch of men (who are normal, working men, not like strippers or famous actors) isn’t fun for women.

The Harajuku Station in Japan

The Harajuku Station in Japan

Why I don’t understand it: These cars aren’t just only for women. Old men and young boys (like middle school age and below) can also ride these cars. I would be more worried about squishing an old man or accidentally hurting a small child. Rather than a “women only” car, it’s more like a “car for anyone except for boys who have hit puberty and businessmen.”

Why I really don’t understand it: these cars only operate as women-only cars on certain hours of certain days. It’s not all the time. The women-only cars on trains going to Tokyo are typically “women only” for cars arriving in Tokyo station between 7am and 9am – but it changes depending on the line. Each car and corresponding spot on the pavement for being waiting in line for the train designates it as a women only car.  However, that’s what really confuses me.

The signs are all permanent – but the fact that it is a women only car is not permanent. As I said before, it is a women usually only car during specific hours of the day. For the rest of the time the signs still exist designating it as women only, but anyone can ride the car.

Womens Only car in Tokyo Japan

For the first month in Japan, every time I was hanging out with friends we couldn’t figure out if the train was women-only or not. I had this fear we would all get kicked off the train because there was a guy in our group.

(By the way, does anyone know of any train lines in Japan/Tokyo that have a permanent “women only” car?

I understand the need for a women-only car. When someone’s job is to push as many people as physically possible onto a train, all thoughts of personal space go away. Everyone is packed so tightly they can’t even move their arms. And when you can’t move your arms, they are stuck at their natural resting position – near your hips. Unfortunately, near your hips also means near everyone else hips.

Station attendant pushing people into crowded train, Tokyo Japan

And that’s how inappropriate touching can accidentally happen.

I’ve never had anything close to an accidental (or purposeful) accidental touching incident – even though I take the last train pretty often. And I still feel uncomfortable on crowded trains.

If they’re going to go to all the trouble to make a women-only car on a train, it should be women only ALL the time. I would like the option to not have to deal with men on the train – especially when I’m in a bad mood.

Crowded train in Tokyo, Japan Chuo Line

Every once in a while, when I’m tired, angry with my headphones on and reading my kindle some over-confident young adult with spikey hair comes along and is like “Hey, let’s be friends on Facebook and go drinking later~” and then I have to pretend to be Russian and not speak English until they leave me alone (which really just shows the caliber of people who hit on me – if I’m reading my kindle, it’s probably in English).

Why I kind of DO understand it: The “awkwardly getting squished up against a stranger” problem really only applies during the morning rush and last trains. The women only car usually only operates as women-only during the morning rush.

A day-long women-only car would be nice, but it is not necessary. Even on the Yamanote and Chuo line, the trains are rarely crowded enough to cause problems.

Anti harassment (chikan) poster on a Tokyo train

And if they did a women-only car at night, it would probably just cause problems. The last couple trains are always havoc, no one wants to be stuck at the station overnight. Adding an extra factor (only women can ride this car), just complicates things. Simple is better. I think. And I can’t imagine how much it would suck for that one man, too drunk to realize he got in the wrong line and was stranded overnight at some random station.

Final thoughts: If they’re going to go into all the trouble of making a women-only car, it should be women only all the time. I don’t care if that makes life more complicated for some people. I think that Tokyo train lines really need a day-long women only car. If for no other reason other than to just stop confusing foreigners, the women’s only car needs to be an all-day thing.

Womens Only car in Tokyo Japan

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11 responses to “Things I don’t understand about Japan: Women Only Cars on Trains in Tokyo

  1. Pingback: Sexism in Japan: Three Sexist Signs on Japanese Trains | Texan in Tokyo·

  2. I understand the need for Women Only cars and am glad my wife can ride then when necessary. But having a women only car because someone is in a bad mood and wants to avoid being annoyed does not classify as necessary. Sexual assault yes, not wanting to be disturbed, no.Its public transport, not private.
    Having said that, I like your blog

    • Yeah, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. I’ve had several Japanese friends that have been groped on the train and therefore ONLY ride in the women only cars.
      I think this post spun off one of our conversations about a need for a “constant/permanent women only car” on all trains (for the night rush). Nonetheless the Japanese problem/solution is very interesting.

      Then again, I only work in the afternoons, so I rarely have to take the morning trains and/or deal with the morning rush. I think once I start a normal, 9-to-5 job, I will appreciate the women only cars a bit more.

      • Hey no worries Grace. That’s one of the things I don’t get about Japan:- the public indifference to sexual harassment and overt porn on display to children. If having these cars is the only way for these women to feel safe, then I am 100% behind them but it would be better for the society to take this issue seriously and come down on these scumbags like a tonney of bricks!

  3. Women-only cars were introduced about 5-10 year ago to fight the increasing incidence of (reported) groping on trains. It isn’t just for fun and comfort, but to ensure that men could not use the context of overcrowded train cars to anonymously grope women.

    Consequently, they only exist at peak hour (essentially 1-2h in the morning) when said train cars are likely to be overcrowded. There is not good reason for having such cars on half-empty trains in the middle of the day.

    The idea is debatable (some consider it an admission of defeat in the face of widespread sexual harassment issues) but in practice, it makes sense.

    • Interesting. I didn’t realize the women only cars were that recent.
      I think it is an excellent solution to the problem of sexual harassment – especially since it is difficult to prove or catch in such crowded circumstances.

      Do you know of any women only cars that also operate in the evening, (like after midnight) to deal with the crowded trains (especially filled with drunkards)?

  4. It’s quite simple: as Osaka’s governor Hashimoto has stated earlier this week: men sometimes have to let off steam. Japanese do so by assaulting or groping women. That is why there is a need for these cars 😉

  5. It’s probably for the same reasons they have women only cars on trains in India- to keep from groping and sexual assault in a crowded area. Though it’s a bit weird they don’t run it all day. That seems a little counterproductive, but what do I know?

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