Power of the Eyes - Deterring Sexual Harassment in the Japanese Subway

Apr 08, 2020

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The feeling of being watched can change our behaviour, even if the watch is artificial. A growing body of evidence has displayed that mere images of watchful eyes can induce donations, recycling and generosity (Powell et al., 2012; Francey and Bergmüllerstop, 2012; Keller and Pfattheicher, 2011). This phenomenon is known as the “watching eyes” effect. This proposal explores the possibility of applying this simple and cost-efficient strategy to deter the notorious groping in Japanese subways, which the Japanese named “chikan”.

The Science in Our Eyes and Psychology of Surveillance

Biologically, it is an animalistic instinct to become aware of danger and to initiate a fight-or-flight response when predated. Although acts of natural predation are rare amongst humans, the same neuropsychological architecture still lingers (Baron-Cohen, 1995). Interestingly, out of all primatal species, humans possess the largest ratio of exposed sclera size, hypothesised to have emerged for greater efficacy in non-verbal communication. Neuroscientists have also discovered that the unpleasant atmosphere felt when stared stems not from being monitored, but rather the belief of being watched by conspecifics (Wykowska et al., 2009).

Artificial surveillance exploits this human sensitivity to gaze to shape behaviours without the presence of real surveillance. While it is suggested that the act of being watched makes people more prosocial, a more accurate implication is that surveillance induces people to act more normatively. Additionally, recent experimental study by Panagopoulos and van der Linden (2017) discovered high level of negative emotions such as shame and disgust when individuals are exposed to images of watchful eyes.

Many criminal acts are stimulated by the perception that the offenders’ actions will not be seen. Surveillance thereby influences people’s perception of opportunities for crimes by inducing awareness of others’ presence, increase potential anxiety and heighten their social awareness and self-evaluation which are often important decision-making mechanisms in the first place.

Fitting the Japanese Context

In Japan, where informal social control itself is a crime prevention tactic (Komiya, 1999), the standard navigating principle to “kūki wo yomu” (“to read the air”) has cultivated Japan’s heavily valued conformity. This makes Japan distinctive in which its culture has already internalised the psychology of the “ever-watchful eyes”. Criminologically, this characteristic has contributed to Japan’s low crime rate and is essential to understand why strategies exploiting informal social control would have a stronger say to augment behaviours in Japan than elsewhere.

The Manual of the Eyes – Designs, Successes and the Previous Lessons

The Eye – The watching eyes effect is most effective when images are prominently realistic, large-eyed, alert and tightly-cropped (Bateson et al., 2006; Lewis, 2016), hence triggering more effective psychological functions. From their research, Swirnoff (1989) and Lewis (2010) also found that the colour yellow is the most viable, stable and often the first colour human eyes can perceive. It has therefore, been widely used in signage, school buses and emergency vehicles. When designing the eyes, the colour yellow is preferred to leverage the potential power by captivating attention.

Another interesting yet under-explored observation is the importance of eyebrows. While its function is commonly understood to divert perspiration, scientists have found they are critical in expressing emotions and social signals, including anger and threat (Sadr et al., 2003). Therefore, an image of staring eyes including the eyebrow region should be employed when designing the images to maximise the emotion of fear.

Verbal Message – Displaying strong verbal warning is common and can be valuable to deter crimes as it implies authorities’ awareness. From a behavioural science perspective, indicating the severity of the situation may, however, inadvertently normalise the situation and justify inappropriate behaviours. This is what Robert Cialdini identified as the “big mistake” policymakers commit. Therefore, in the context of groping in Japan, if a verbal message were to be included with the images, rather than stating: “70% of Japanese women were groped, we are watching you”, the message could state: “95% of Japanese males and females find chikan distasteful and abnormal. You are being monitored!” This warning could then reinforce a shaming effect and deter offenders from acting against social norms.

Location –The images of eyes should be displayed adjacent to surveillance technologies like CCTVs to fully engage the psychology of surveillance. Additionally, as method of defence, many Japanese girls pin badges around the shoulder area on their backpacks or handbags stating: “Chikan is a crime!”. While the logic behind this is distinct from the watching eyes effect, its effectiveness may increase if an image of staring eyes were to be included.

Aside from displaying them next to CCTVs, the images of eyes should also be displayed as “timely” as possible: when the passengers enter the station, near the entrance, elevators, platform walls, and inside the carriages. The reasoning is that the sooner the images are displayed, the earlier the psychology of surveillance can be engaged and accumulated.

Other benefits

This intervention has several additional benefits with regards to policy-making. The benefits can be summarized in the acronym ‘FACE’: flexible, attractive, cheap and easy.

Flexible. While CCTVs are often restricted due to financial and technological restraints, blind spots or privacy issues, images of eyes can be displayed in any location with adjustable size configurations.

Attractive. While the UK Behavioural Insights Team (2014) regards attractiveness as a key element of an effective behavioural policy, the mere image of eyes itself can be eye-catching as humans are naturally sensitive to gaze. Besides, a possible digitalisation of images could further attract more attention by portraying more realistic human eyes.

Cheap. If compared to policies such as building more women-only carriages, expanding train capacity or installing more CCTVs, displaying images of eyes is inexpensive and hence economically attractive.

Easy. This measure is easy to implement and could spark fewer social debates or counteractive forces. Meanwhile, since the embarrassment of reporting remains an issue for most victims and witnesses, wearing badges with images of eyes can be stress-free and practical. It can further engage with a broader social engineering process of empowering citizens to stand up against groping.

Possible Limitations and Response

Displacement. Like many other situational interventions, a possible displacement of groping to other locations remains a big challenge. However, a vast number of studies actually found diffusion of benefits as the opposite to displacement (Guerette and Bowers, 2009). In other words, due to the increase in perception of surveillance, potential offenders are less likely to commit other types of crimes and offend in nearby places. Hence, the benefits of surveillance diffuse.

Desensitisation. Potential offenders may become desensitised to the watching eyes effect after exposed to the same image for a prolonged period. However, a possible solution is to digitalise images as stated previously. Images can be displayed on the constantly changing electronic panels inside stations and carriages. Digitalisation of images can even include animations or realistic eye movements, such as blinking, to increase the resemblance and maximise the effect. This in turn can be executed by programming a piercing gaze to blink, with the above descriptions as to how to maximise effectiveness of the watching eyes effect (Fig 1).

It takes more than a pair of eyes

Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to rely on a pair of eyes to stop sexual harassments. Unlike other opportunistic crimes, groping is triggered by the deeply rooted male domination and female subjugation, instead of a simple sexual impulse (Saito, 2017). Therefore, a critical caveat of this proposal is its limited effectiveness in addressing the crucial cultural issues, such as the reluctance of reporting, gender inequality and issues surrounding urban settings. Policymakers must be aware of this limitation and react accordingly to design holistic policies which target factors ranging from public awareness, women empowerment to station design. Essentially, the objective of this proposal is to reveal these limitations, to expand the scope of current discussion, to explore the potential role of bio-psychological factors in designing public policy and to urge for more experimental studies on the related subjects.

*The author has published a more detailed elaboration on the effects of watchful eyes and policy implication on the Journal of Behavioural Policy by the Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/bpp.2019.51


Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). The eye direction detector (EDD) and the shared attention mechanism (SAM): Two cases for evolutionary psychology. In C. Moore & P. J. Dunham (Eds.), Joint attention: Its origins and role in development (pp. 41-59). Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Saito, A.K. (2017). The reasons why men became Chikan.Tokyo: East Press. (in Japanese)

Swirnoff, Lois. (1989). Dimensional color. Cambridge: Birkhauser Boston.

Tags : Sexual Harassment , Behavorial Economics , Public Policy

Kiki Chu Ka Ki is a graduate of the Master of Criminal Justice Policy from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).