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Women stand against high heels in Japan
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Women stand against high heels in Japan

Dress codes may change as the #KuToo campaign against dress codes goes viral

For Risa Konishi, who works in an event planning company in Tokyo, the requirement that she wear high heels is absurd since her work demands that she walk or stand almost the entire working day.

"I don't like to wear high heels. I find them annoying," Konishi said, adding that whenever she complained about how tired she was after wearing them all day, her colleagues would suggest she keep a pair of sneakers in the office.

"They told me I can wear sneakers inside our company but when going out for events or meeting a customer, you have to change. Otherwise, it's against the rules.

"Is my respect for our customers really conveyed by what kind of shoes I am wearing?" Konishi asked.

Although she had been storing her complaints for a long time, Konishi admits that she didn't have the courage to speak out because "Beggars can't be choosers".

However, things have begun to change in Japan as the #KuToo movement - social media campaign against dress codes and expectations that women wear high heels at work - has gone viral, as thousands of people joining in support.

The campaign was started in January by Yumi Ishikawa, a 32-year-old actress and freelance writer who tweeted she had difficulty standing in heels for eight hours during training at a hotel and so had to change her career path.

In her tweets, Ishikawa used the hashtag #KuToo - a pun based on the Japanese words for shoe ("kutsu") and pain ("kutsuu") that is also inspired by the #MeToo hashtag, which represents an international movement against sexual harassment.

Since then, #KuToo has been used by women to talk about their "high heel" experiences on social media as Ishikawa's tweets gained over 67,000 likes and almost 30,000 retweets.

In June, Ishikawa submitted a petition to Japan's labor ministry demanding the government ban companies from requiring female employees wear high heels on the job. More than 19,000 people in Japan have signed it.

However, Japanese lawmakers so far have not supported the movement. They tend to regard this part of a women's dress code as appropriate. Only 10 percent of Members of Parliament in the lower house of Japan's parliament are women and only 20 percent in the upper house.

"I think it's within the range of what's commonly accepted as necessary and appropriate in the workplace," Takumi Nemoto, Japan's minister of Health, Labor and Welfare said in a parliamentary session in June.

But Nemoto also said employers who forced female workers that had been injured to continue to wear high heels could be considered guilty of "power harassment".

In response to the health minister's comment, Ishikawa seemed frustrated but also thought it would push the issue more into the spotlight.

"It seems like men don't really understand that wearing high heels can be painful and lead to injuries," she was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"But even if women aren't hurt, I'd like such expectations to be considered power harassment," she added.

Ishikawa said Nemoto's remarks might prompt people to debate the issue seriously and some may bring it up with their bosses.

"I think this is going in a good direction," she said.

Contrary to the hot debate online, the reactions from the public and private sectors has been rather cold.

In a telephone interview with China Daily, an official from Japan's health ministry's equal employment opportunity department said there is no plan to change laws on whether employers could require certain staff dress codes.

Currently, there are no laws that restrict companies from regulating employees' wear in Japan, but the #KuToo activists are hoping that day Japan will follow Philippines and the Canadian province of British Columbia; both passed laws that banned employers from forcing women to wear heels at work in 2017.

"I asked some friends and colleagues around me. We didn't know about the #Kutoo movement, but we don't have such requirements in our company," said Nai Watanabe who works in an entertainment company, "I think there is a temperature difference depending on what business you are doing."

"Actually, I think it is not a problem because the dress restrictions in Japan for women are fewer than for men," said Watanabe. "Besides, there are many high heels that are very comfortable to wear now."

A disliked issue

Unlike Watanabe, people in Japan may dislike the issue, a survey from Business Insider Japan, the US financial and business news website's Japanese version had found.

Conducted in this month, the survey found that nearly 60 percent of the targeted 1,229 Japanese working women respondents replied they had felt forced to wear high-heeled shoes while job hunting or working; 70 percent didn't like the requirement.

However, only 21 percent of the respondents said their companies clearly required women to wear high heels, while others did so because "it was considered as a custom", "followed instructions from manner lectures" and "were told to wear them by superiors or seniors".

The survey also found that companies requiring high-heeled shoes were mainly in the service sectors such as hotels, restaurants, information and communication corporations, and financial and insurance ones.

"Concerning the type of work, customer service, reception and sales are the most outstanding ones," the survey said.

Yu Qiang, a researcher of Japanese studies at the University of International Relations in Beijing said dress codes change all the time and perhaps nowhere has such changes occurred more slowly than in the highly-gendered corporate culture of Japan, but the #Kutoo movement is a good start for the change, Yu said.

"Japan has a formal society where one often finds men wearing suits and neckties while women wear dresses and high heels in four seasons," Yu said, "It is hard to change in a short period of time, but it is becoming better as men can now just wear shirts without a jacket in summer and women can wear flat shoes."

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