A social movement calling to end compulsory high heels and pumps for women at work initially made headway over social media with the hashtag #KuToo — an amalgam of the global #MeToo movement and the Japanese words for “shoes” (kutsu) and “pain” (kutsū). Since its inception, #KuToo has blown up from an online protest into a street wide demonstration in Tokyo against sexist dress codes.
An online petition presented to the Ministry of Health in early June collected 19,000 signatures pushing for legal measures against companies that order mandatory gender-based work dress codes. The figure has since risen to 29,300 signatures. A Health Ministry official responded by “firmly accepting the documents requests” but dodged responsibility saying it was “difficult” for a government to decree what should be prohibited. Instead, dress codes “should be discussed between labor and management at each workplace,” the official said.
Leading the #KuToo movement is aspiring actress Yumi Ishikawa. When she started a part-time job at a funeral home while also juggling work in the entertainment industry she was told to wear high heels of between 5 and 7 centimeters as a part of the dress code for women. On Twitter Ishikawa has been vocal about the discomfort and health problems women working long hours in the service industry experience, asking, “Why do we have to injure our feet while working when men are allowed to wear flat shoes?”
Since launching the online petition in February, Ishikawa has made global headlines and visited the Diet for an emergency meeting called “Farewell to forced pumps.” She points out company business norms in Japan are entrenched with gender discrimination.
Doctors say a woman’s spine can reveal how many years high heels were worn in their lifetime. According to a Living How Research Institute study on the impact high heels have on women’s physical health, roughly 82 percent of women who work full-time said they experience problems with their feet while 45 percent suffered from “deformation of feet and toes” with conditions such as hallux valgus.
Women on online forums have also shared the safety disadvantages high heels bring in concrete jungles like Tokyo, which is made up of high rises and skyscrapers. In a disaster situation such as an earthquake, where elevators would be out of use, running down the stairs in pumps from the upper floors of a building can be life threatening and a burden when trying to make an escape for one’s life.
However, the connection between shoes and health and safety has been rarely addressed in workplace labor issues, in favor of upholding traditional business etiquette, uniformity, and presentation. Now, for the first time the #KuToo movement has drawn attention to women’s voices demanding high heels be a matter of individual choice rather than required by dress codes. A questionnaire conducted by Business Insider Japan revealed that out of 207 respondents, 60 percent answered they were being forced to wear high heels to work.
During Diet question time Health Minister Takumi Nemoto stirred controversy by showing very little sympathy to the petition. He indidcated that he had no intention of supporting a ban on high heels in dress codes, saying that “it’s generally accepted by society that wearing high heels is necessary and reasonable in workplaces.” At the same Diet session, Deputy Health Minister Emiko Takagai disagreed with Nemoto, arguing she did not believe women should be forced to wear pumps at work.
Kanako Otsuji, a member of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, also pointed out that mandatory heels can be a form of harassment, arguing, “It’s an abuse of power if a worker with an injured foot is forced to wear high heels.”
Shinobu Naito, deputy chief researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training (JILPT), echoed protestors’ concerns saying pumps and heels have been scientifically proven to increase health problems and the risk of accidents. “In terms of health hazards and disaster risks, it’s obvious the disadvantage is high,” he argued. Such policies, in his mind, are “likely” the result of “sexual discrimination.”