Police in Fukuoka, Japan, this week arrested and filed charges against a 37-year-old salaryman who had sent unsolicited penis pictures via a smartphone to a fellow passenger on a train, violating the prefecture’s ordinance forbidding troublesome behavior – specifically a clause regarding obscene and degenerate acts.

While there had been previous arrests for similarly dubious behavior, this time the arrest struck a chord, particularly among women who had been subjected to similar harassment. The news trended on Twitter, went viral on social media and finally hit the mainstream press, who discussed the bizarre but disturbing practice.

Japan’s notorious chikan, or perverts, have always wielded technology, such as hidden cameras and smartphones, with considerable aplomb, but the arrest comes at a time when women who have been virtually flashed are both sharing their disturbing experiences and discussing counter-measures.

Perverting technology

Japan was one of the first countries to develop camera phones, way before the iPhone. The chikan soon made smartphones a key weapon in their arsenals.

Camera phones were deployed to snap up-skirt photos of school girls’ underwear, to take sneak photographs of women in bathroom stalls – and of course, nude photos at Japan’s hot springs and public baths.

After a B-grade TV celebrity was caught videotaping the underwear of a woman on the Tokyo subway in 2000, telecommunications manufacturers began including a built-in shutter sound that goes off whenever a photo is taken. That had some impact on cutting down on sneak-photography. But where there is a will, there is a way.

Most Apple products have a photo, movie and data sharing function called “AirDrop.”

Depending on a phone’s setting, anyone within a 30-foot range can share photos or data with you and you with them – sometimes multiple users at a time. AirDrop is handy for sharing a plethora of photos taken together on a trip, or perhaps sharing a map with fellow travelers.

AirDrop works like this: When you are sent a photo, you have the option of accepting or refusing it. However, no matter what choice you make, a large thumbnail of the photo is displayed on your screen.

Rise of the virtual flasher

This is the back door that allows a perv in a cramped subway trolley to zap a digital “dick pic” to anyone in his vicinity with an Apple device that has its AirDrop settings set loosely.

Virtual flashing is relatively safer than groping a victim in a public space. Chikan apparently derive a perverse excitement when seeing the look of disgust or dismay cross the face of their victims when they see the penis thumbnail suddenly appear.

As a result, a new term has been coined: The digital molesters are now called “AirDrop Chikan.”

And with more than 41% of Japan’s smartphone users using iPhones, the number of potential victims is astronomical.

Writer Rebecca Quin described her experience in a published article. “Yesterday while I was browsing Instagram to distract myself from the grim reality of a packed Tokyo evening commute, an image of what was either a naked hedgehog or – far more likely – a man’s scrotum suddenly appeared on my phone screen …shocked, angry and with the image of a clammy ball sack etched into my memory, I came to the realization that I had been digitally flashed.”

Being ‘Air-Dicked’

The vocalist and artist living in Japan known as Kimblee told Asia Times of the effect the practice had on her.

“It’s really sleazy and it’s unsettling because you don’t know who it is but you know they are close by,” she said. “I don’t know if a disgusted reaction is what they want … I don’t know if they will follow me off the train.”

What makes the practice particularly sinister is that AirDrop only works within a 30-foot range, making the victim feel stalked by someone close at hand, but she does not know who the chikan is.

She told Asia Times that each time it happened, her day had been thrown off. “It takes a little time for my eyeballs and my sanity to recover – because someone decided to subject me to their unwanted creepy bullshit. Again!”

Taking on the penis pervs

It is possible to avoid getting digitally flashed by changing the settings on an iPhone to only accept AirDrops from contacts, or from no one at all. However, that can also be inconvenient.

A 32-year-old professional translator living in Tokyo, who requested anonymity and who has been virally flashed twice, explained why this is so to Asia Times.

“I usually have my phone set to accept AirDrop from only my contacts, but sometimes at work or when hanging out with new people, I’ll set it to ‘Everyone’ and then forget to set it back,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have to. I am glad to see the police actually arresting people for doing this now.”

She says the next time she gets penis bombed on a train she knows what she will do.

“I’m going to hold up my phone and yell loudly ‘To whatever guy who sent this – I appreciate the naughty photo, but with a penis this tiny, you shouldn’t be bragging! Send something better.’”

She hopes the ridicule might discourage him from doing it again, but realizes that such a confrontation could have unexpected consequences.

“I don’t want the guy to jump off the train to his death – streaking isn’t a death penalty offense, plus it would probably make me late for work,” she said. “However, I would like to see the discomfort on his face – I have a feeling he’ll flinch.”

Artist Kimberlee said she was considering penning a musical diatribe to drop a harsh beat on the AirDrop Chikan – a protest song that Japan definitely needs.

Leveraging the fear factor

There are subtler ways of avoiding AirDrop penis bombs, such as changing the ID of an iPhone in Settings. However, generally speaking, feminine names in Japan, usually ending with “ko” – such as Tomoko, Hiroko or Keiko. These womanly IDs tend to get the most unwanted AirDrops.

Due to this, some advise women to change the ID of their phone to that of a police station or a prominent yakuza group – on the grounds that even the boldest chikan would have second thoughts about sending a photo of his wedding tackle to someone labeled “Yakuza58” or “Yamaguchi-gumiHQ.”

And as Fukuoka’s finest have recently made clear, if you mistakenly send one to a police officer, you could end up doing your viral flashing from behind bars.