Does western hair smell different from Japanese hair? This was the burning question in the mind of at least one chikan riding the Osaka subway one sunny afternoon.
You hear a lot about the “chikans” (gropers) in Japan – and people had told me to watch out for these on the trains/subways here. I therefore used to keep my eyes peeled for odd, sweaty, furtive men in dirty coats whose hands seemed to be twitching so I could show off with some recently learned Japanese swear words at the first contact. Disappointly, however, the only chikans I ever encountered were the scare-signs they put up at railway stations like this one. (There’s a poster up at one of my local railway stations, outside the ladies’ toilets, pointing out that flash photography up skirts is forbidden, with a lovely drawing.)
Indeed, I had begun to believe that chikans were not quite the ubiquitous threat that they were made out to be, even if the perception of said threat was so great as to warrant women-only carriages on the subways here. Either the remaining chikans had confined themselves to visiting the sorts of clubs which featured mock-train carriages and charged them for ‘groping’ the passengers/hostesses, or I just wasn’t chikan-friendly material…
Then, one day on the subway a bizarre incident occurred. I was sitting in an empty-ish carriage, on the end of one of the bench seats next to the doors. There was a man standing some way down the carriage, about fifty or so, quite nondescript looking. I only noticed him because there were so many empty seats and he was the only one standing. I was listening to my MP3 player and not paying much attention when he started to make his way down the swaying carriage towards me. He paused next to where I was sitting. I thought nothing of it as I presumed he was simply positioning himself in front of the doors, ready for disembarking at the next station. I’d noticed him looking at me but thought it was just because I’m foreign. Also, it was a little odd that the guy had walked past a couple of other doors to stand by my door, but, well, some people just have a favourite exit point – don’t they?
Then he started sniffing my hair.
Let’s be clear here. This man did not have a cold. He was not politely inhaling the delicious aroma of a spring day inside a metal people-box. He was sniffing so hard I was alerted to it over the sound of the music in my headphones. He was also leaning over towards my head, less than a foot away. I looked up at him – he looked away. Hands in his pockets, he stared blankly out of the glass doors as the train pulled into the next stop. The doors hissed open. He didn’t get off.
No, what he did was slowly saunter back up the carriage to stand in his previous spot as the subway juddered back into motion. I think he was still there when I got off at my stop.