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#KuToo: Japanese women are saying no to high heels – here’s why

Yumi Ishikawa, founder of Japan’s KuToo movement, is working to ban compulsory high heels and slut-shaming

In an unprecedented move in March, Japan Airlines stated it would update its strict dress code for female flight attendants. As of April 2020, the airline would no longer require female employees to wear high heels or skirts at work. The decision has been hailed as yet another major win for #KuToo, the nation’s anti-high heels movement.

Over the past year, tens of thousands of women in Japan have been sharing the hashtag #KuToo – a play on the words “pain” (kutsuu) and “shoes” (kutsu), in protest against dress codes which require women wear high heels while at work.

The #KuToo movement began in January 2019, when Yumi Ishikawa, a former model and funeral home attendant, tweeted about her exhaustion and leg pain after wearing high heels all day at work. “I hope to someday see the end of the custom that women must wear high heels at work,” the 33-year old posted on Twitter; the tweet has since gained over 64,000 likes and 28,000 retweets. 

In Japan, many offices and service industry-oriented workplaces require – either explicitly in guidelines, or implied in work culture – workers to adhere to specific dress codes. That usually means high heels, makeup and skirts for women, while men normally wear suits and dress shoes.

According to a 2019 survey organised by Business Insider Japan, over 60 per cent female workers have been required to wear high heels either on the job or while job-hunting. And in regions like Tokyo, up to 70 per cent of women reported wearing high heels at least once a week, according to local press

Activists like Ishikawa argue that wearing high heels daily – especially in service-oriented jobs where employees must be on their feet all day – causes uncomfortable swelling, pain, sores, and potential chronic leg injuries that can impact one’s long-term health. Supporters of the movement have tweeted dozens, if not hundreds, of gruesome photos of their own bloodied, bruised feet as evidence.  

Strict women’s dress codes are just part of the problem, argue Ishikawa and her supporters. Besides image constrictions, employers also expect women to perform “feminine” duties like serving tea. Ishikawa believes that tackling the dress code issue is the first step, one that will hopefully pave the way for gender equality. 

In early 2019, Ishikawa launched a petition, which has since received over 32,000 signatures, on asking the government to address workplace dress codes. So far the government has acknowledged the inequality of such dress codes and issued guidelines citing high heels as a form of “power abuse” that should be avoided.

Meanwhile, Ishikawa has become a figurehead of #KuToo, speaking with the government on workplace dress code guidelines. She also works with local businesses to change the look and feel of the nation’s conventional female “job-hunting shoes,” which tend to be black, nondescript heeled shoes between 3 to 6 centimetres in height.

“We started to recruit businesses including shoe companies, apparel firms, department stores, and suit-makers, to talk about the kind of shoes they could promote for women in the workforce,” says Ishikawa. The activist says she does profit from the sales of these collaborations, which she organises to ensure women have access to a variety of ergonomic flats, business-appropriate sneakers and other shoes that do not cause physical pain or long-term health problems. 

Since mid-2019, Ishikawa has also worked with Japanese e-commerce apparel platform Locondo, to launch a collection of ergonomic flat-heeled shoes for women. Though they have sold quite a few pairs, Ishikawa says it’s been difficult to get major companies to sell them. In Japan, a handful of companies dominate the job-seeking and office apparel market. Essentially, these companies specialise in conservative styles that have since become the standard over the past few decades.

“I understand it’s risky to change what’s been regarded as ‘convention,’” she says. “And yet Japan Airlines has managed to change their rules… I hope this triggers other airlines, hotels and events companies, which require women to wear heels, to change as well.”

Yumi Ishikawa speaks on the KuToo movement at a press event. Credit: Nanami Miyamoto
Yumi Ishikawa speaks on the KuToo movement at a press event. Credit: Nanami Miyamoto

I hope this movement will make Japanese firms consider putting health and safety first for female employees.

Yumi Ishikawa

Becoming the figurehead of the #KuToo movement has caused other concerns for Ishikawa such as cyberbullying and slut-shaming, causing the movement to expand its focus from dress codes to women’s safety, agency and freedom of expression. On several occasions, male critics of the campaign have attempted to shame Ishikawa over her past work as a gravure idol (akin to swimsuit and lingerie modelling in Japanese pop culture). However, Ishikawa has countered by arguing that women should have agency over their bodies and express themselves freely.

“Over time, the level of harassment has not declined. It’s actually gotten worse,” says Ishikawa of the “hate comments” and angry messages she has received due to the campaign’s rising profile. But the support the movement has received keeps her going, she adds. 

“More people are starting to notice the strangeness of workplace cultures that only require women to look beautiful or feminine,” she says, citing bans on glasses and mandatory makeup as examples. “I hope this movement will make Japanese firms consider putting health and safety first for female employees.”