Yumi Ishikawa, a Japanese actress, freelance writer, and part-time funeral parlor worker, started the #KuToo Movement because she feels it’s unfair she has to wear heels at work. She also feels that being required to wear heels is rooted in a cultural problem, one much deeper than physical discomfort.
Many businesses in Japan require working women to wear heels or pumps between five and seven centimeters, or 1.9 and 2.75 inches. For jobs that necessitate women to be on their feet all day, like Ishikawa’s job at the funeral parlor, the shoes are a significant inconvenience. She believes that she would be more productive and efficient if she could wear flats or sneakers. When she complained via Twitter about the societal convention, she received nearly 30,000 retweets and more than 60,000 likes. As a result, other women began sharing their own stories of discomfort with heels, posting photos of their bloodied and blistered feet in solidarity with Ishikawa.
“We need to be angry about this, but we’ve been taught to live with it for many years,” Ishikawa told Reuters.
The social media campaign tag #KuToo is a triple pun, playing on the Japanese words kutsu (shoes), kutsuu (pain), and the #MeToo movement. Ishikawa makes the argument that mandatory heels for women only is a form of gender discrimination. Working men have no comparable dress code to follow. Men are expected to dress professionally, but do not wear ties and suit jackets in the summer. This allows room temperatures to be kept higher, saving on energy.
According to The Guardian, some campaigners have compared the high-heel policies to foot binding, a practice that began in ancient China. Young girls’ feet were altered by being broken and bound in scarves to prevent them from growing. Smaller feet were seen as feminine—and more desirable to male suitors.
Ishikawa submitted a petition to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare on June 3, 2019, to advocate for a law that would prohibit companies and businesses from requiring women to wear heels. In her own petition, Ishikawa writes: “Pumps and heels can cause hallux valgus [bunions] depending on the person, blood from their feet, shoe rubs, and stress on the waist leading to various health problems.”
In a video by the Japan Times, Ishikawa said that a Labor Ministry official claimed that the campaign was the first time he realized heels are painful for women to wear. Additionally, an event in Tokyo held in June 2019 gave men the chance to try on and walk around in high heels, showing how uncomfortable they are and the strain they put on women’s feet.
Ayako Kano, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that emphasizing the health problems of wearing heels for extended periods of time could be beneficial to the campaign. “Could a law banning the requirement be passed? Maybe—if the negative effects to women’s health become a widely shared concern,” Kano said in an email correspondence. “If there is an effort to make it a public health issue (like with smoking in the workplace) then we might see some change.”
Ishikawa summarized the problems of mandatory heels with two major points. First, an emphasis on gender and dress code unnecessarily takes precedence over people of different genders doing the same work. Second, while wearing heels is considered appropriate and polite, manners shouldn’t prevail over efficiency and women’s health. Ishikawa is often seen photographed wearing fancy dresses and flowing skirts paired with sneakers—a way to rebel against society’s rules.
Kano, who is also a core faculty member in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, sees potential in more women in Japan wearing sneakers to display their outrage at the policy. “It might tap into a wider trend for recognizing efficiency and comfort over tradition and cultural convention in dress codes,” Kano said. “We see some of this with efforts to revise school uniforms (allowing pants for girls in the winter or less gendered uniforms in general)… if your job requires you to stand or walk around, it should also allow for comfortable and healthy footwear.”
Not everyone believes in Ishikawa’s campaign. The Japanese Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, Takumi Nemoto, believes it’s inappropriate for women not to wear heels. In a parliamentary committee hearing he said that women wearing heels in the workplace is “necessary and reasonable.”
According to Kano, some ideas of feminism have been an issue in Japan since the 1870s, with an increased emphasis on workplace equalities post-World War II. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that social and political action for feminism began to take place in earnest. International conferences held in the 1975 and in the mid-1990s helped Japanese activists learn more about how to advocate for feminism and to make the issues more mainstream. They used what Patricia Boling, a professor of Political Science at Purdue University, describes as “leverage politics,” wherein “advocates were able to work with political leaders to transform long-accepted or -ignored practices into issues that could not be opposed.” Thus, abuses and discriminations against women were recognized as human rights issues.
Laws and councils to prevent gender discrimination have existed in Japan for at least 30 years. The Childcare Leave Law (1992), the Nursing Care Insurance Law (1997), and the Basic Law for Gender Equal Society (1999) were all created to help women better balance work and home life. In addition, there have been several versions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL), beginning in 1986 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In the 1980s, even though the EEOL was passed, job listings often (illegally) specified a preference for men. If, for example, an accountant position was open, employers could write in the ad that they wanted a male accountant.
“The passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law in the 1980s outlawed unequal treatment for men and women, but it was a weak law, and led to the creation of separate tracks to justify separate treatments,” Kano said. “There is a lack of incentive to hire women into the management track, to mentor and to promote women. This is in part because the perception that women will quit their jobs once they have children.”
Societal expectations have created a Catch-22 for Japanese women, often forcing them to choose between being a caretaker at home and having a job. If a woman chooses to work, she may give up getting married and having children, which is seen as problematic because the birth rate in Japan is the lowest it has been in many years. Kanji Kato, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, says he encourages newlyweds to have at least three children. Hakuo Yanagisawa, the former health minister of Japan, said in 2007 that women are “birth giving machines” and that it is their “public duty” to have children.
“The juggling of work and family life is a major challenge in a society where the expectations are very high for full-time workers and equally high for wives and mothers,” Kano said.
On the other hand, if women get married and have children, they are expected to become caregivers for elderly relatives and children, thus giving up on a professional career trajectory, perhaps falling into an ippanshoku, a job that falls into traditional, often stereotypical, gender roles. Of course, these positions are often held in high esteem, often garnering more respect than a full-time, professional job would. When a woman marries in Japan, she is expected to become economically dependent on her husband.
“It is now even more difficult for women to earn a living wage for their whole working lives,” Kano said. “The tax system, insurance system, pension system etc. are designed for women to marry and for their husbands to earn a family wage. The systems are not designed for women to remain single, or be economically independent. As the marriage rate is decreasing rapidly, this is a huge issue for women.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe created the policy “womenomics,” which Kano defines in her article “Womenomics and Acrobatics: Why Japanese Feminists Remain Skeptical about Feminist State Policy,” as “a state policy to boost women’s labour productivity as well as the nation’s birth rate… a new law to promote the advancement of women to leadership positions.” Although womenomics is meant to encourage and empower women to join the workforce, Kano believes it has not had much effect. In fact, it has created more gender-specific jobs, known as “irregular positions.”
“They usually involve full-time work, but not full benefits, and no job security,” Kano said. “In the last decade, many of the ‘clerical track’ positions have been turned into ‘irregular’ positions, and thus the employment situation for women has worsened.” According to Kano’s article, as of 2018, more than 50 percent of employed women in Japan have irregular jobs.
Additionally, Kano writes that Abe is just using womenomics as a tool, increasing Japan’s GDP, encouraging women to increase the birthrate, and moving Japan up in international standings—instead of genuinely supporting women. He has even suggested increasing child care leave to three years instead of one and one half, to pressure women into abandoning the workforce. Abe avoids the words “feminism,” “gender,” and “equality,” replacing them with ambiguous terms like “male-female co-participation and planning” and “lively contribution.”
“Womenomics seemed to be a policy [designed] to make women work harder than ever before, both inside and outside the home,” Kano writes. One of the policy’s main goals was “30 by 20” which declared that, by 2020, 30 percent of leadership positions will be held by women. To encourage more businesses to hire women, the Promotion of Women Law (2015) assessed employers’ ability to empower women. But many in Japan doubted this solution. Kano writes about two Japanese politicians who have been very vocal about keeping women out of leadership positions. Eguchi Katsuhiko said that women in leadership roles would cause more sexual harassment claims. Inoue Yoshiyuki believes gender should not be placed above skill.
In the end, it was decided that “30 by 20” was unrealistic, so the new goal is to have seven percent of women in leadership positions in the government and five percent in the private sector.
Japan is not the only country that has issues with dress codes that target women. British Columbia and the Philippines passed laws banning companies from forcing women to wear high heels in 2017. In 2016, Nicola Thorp was sent home from work for the day without pay, and later fired, for not wearing heels, which sparked outrage throughout England. The 2015 Cannes Film Festival in France barred several women from entering unless they wore heels. At the 2016 festival, women showed up in sneakers or even barefoot to rebel against the rule and to stand up for the women who were not allowed in. Most recently, in July 2019, California became the first state in the U.S. to adopt a law that bans hairstyle discrimination in the workplace and in schools. Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles created the law because, as a black woman, she wants other black people to feel free to wear their hair in braids, twists, and dreadlocks without feeling discriminated against.
Ishikawa will continue to talk about the unfair dress code because she believes talking about it will raise awareness and make people more understanding of what women go through. “If you think something isn’t right, then I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to talk about it,” she said at the Tokyo gathering where men tried on heels.