Yumi Ishikawa is leading the #KuToo movement to bring awareness to gender discrimination against women—starting with their feet. She sat down with Savvy Tokyo to talk high heels, social media backlash, and feminism in modern Japan.
At her job in a funeral parlor, Yumi Ishikawa would work up to eight hours per day. Her work consisted of standing for long periods of time in between running around to ensure the ceremonies were going as planned. Though she rebelled against her company dress code—which required female employees to wear 5 to 7 cm heels—and wore 2 cm heels, she constantly suffered from sore legs, blisters, and bleeding feet.
One day, while aligning shoes at the entrance of a tatami room, she noticed that while her female colleagues had to wear uncomfortable heels, her male counterparts’ shoes were flat, light, and comfy.
“Picking up a pair, I had a moment where I thought ‘wow, they’re so light! I’m desperate to wear the same!’ says Ishikawa, glancing down at her own sneaker-clad feet.
Opening up on Twitter about her feelings, she was surprised when she received thousands of comments and a wave of sympathy from other women. It was at that point she realized this was bigger than just her.
“For a long time, I thought that feeling pain from wearing heels was somehow my fault. I blamed myself for not searching enough for the right pair and not investing in a good pair of shoes. I told myself my feet didn’t have the right shape,” she says.
How a tweet turned into an international debate over gender inequalities in Japan
Struck to hear that high heels seemed to be enforced by a lot of Japanese companies, Ishikawa felt this was no longer a personal issue but a societal one. Researching further, she realized that workplace dress codes for women were also sparking debate and that the topic was being labeled as an issue of gender inequality in countries like Britain, France, and Canada.
That’s when she began to understand the underlying implications of women being forced to wear heels.
“I’d been studying feminism for about a year and a half and suddenly, it occurred to me that workplace outfit requirements for women were actually a gender inequality issue, one that we needed to address and solve,” she said.
Researching further, she wondered how heels ended up being part of women’s professional etiquette. Eager to start the debate in Japan, she contacted the website Change.org for advice about how to organize herself and figure out the steps.
Helped by the website, she launched a petition addressed to the Ministry of Health, Labor, & Welfare and came up with the ingenious hashtag, #KuToo—a nod to the viral #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault sparked by abuse allegations against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.
The wave of anecdotes in reply to Ishikawa’s tweet also echoed the viral traction of the #MeToo movement, and media—both domestic and international—began to report on the story. Business Insider Japan even conducted a survey which revealed that 60% of Japanese women have been asked to wear heels for work or job interviews.
For Yumi, all the sudden attention was welcome, if only because it shed light on a problem left undiscussed.
“I started #KuToo because I had something to share with society and my message went through. The movement could get going thanks to everyone’s efforts. This is proof that we collectively need to talk about this issue.”
#KuToo rises in Japan as #MeToo fades away
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