Why are so many Japanese women pigeon toed?

By George Lloyd, grape Japan
Photo: PIXTA

It is an obvious, perennial question, one that must pop into the head of every visitor within 24 hours of touching down at Narita, and yet a conclusive answer remains as elusive as the yeti. Having Googled the question, and read myriad conjectures, suppositions and wild guesses, I was still none the wiser, so I did as the ancients and took my quandary to my local hostelry.

Being a popular debating club for those with perennial questions bubbling away in the recesses of their minds, I’ve often found myself at the Worrisome Kilt in Ueno, debating some thorny topic with the regulars over a few bottles of Proper Job.

My question was taken up eagerly. The first theory I heard by way of explanation was that the pigeon toed stance otherwise known as uchimata 内股 is a result of the way that Japanese mothers carry their infants in a sling on their hip.

However, as I was quick to point out, this theory doesn’t hold water, because very few young mothers in Japan carry their infants on their hips (unless they’re planting rice, that is). Besides, carrying your infant on your hip is de rigueur in many parts of Africa, and yet the sight of pigeon toes en masse seems to be peculiar to Japan.

A second theory wasn’t long in coming. “It’s obvious,” said a Welsh giant, jabbing at my chest with a bony finger and breathing beery fumes into my face. “Uchimata is a consequence of the shape of the Japanese leg.”

He went on to explain that Japanese people have shorter calves than most people, and this makes their toes point inwards. I didn’t want to risk the giant’s wrath by openly challenging him, but I didn’t buy his theory either. Were it true, why would the condition affect so many Japanese women and so few men? Unless that is, Japan’s women have shorter calves than its men, a supposition I have found no evidence to support. As diplomatically as I could, I poo-pooed the giant’s theory too.

We were now stumped, but the lull in what had quickly become a remarkably lively debate, even by the Warrior’s stellar standards, was mercifully broken by the intervention of a well-informed medical student. His theory, related to that of the Welshman but rather more grounded in praxis, was that the prevalence of mass pigeon toed-ness is a consequence of seiza 正座, the practice of sitting on one’s calves (he also mentioned pechanko-zuwari ぺちゃんこ座り, or sitting on the floor with your legs splayed on either side of your body).

I was impressed - but not for long. One of the Worrisome Kilt’s veteran skeptics pointed out that the medical student’s theory would be plausible if sitting on one’s legs were still commonplace in Japan but, as even the most recent arrival will tell you, very few people sit on their calves or the floor anymore.

He was right. Sadly, the table and chair killed off the tatami mat a generation ago, and with it went the practice of sitting on the floor. Admittedly, a handful of diehards still insist on sitting on their calves while seated on a chair, but they are too few and far between to account for the prevalence of uchimata, which seems to be increasing rather than decreasing as the nation’s tatami mats recede into the shadows of Japanese history.

“Could it be that walking pigeon toed is in fact a conscious decision, made by women in an attempt to look cute?” a visiting Icelandic sociologist wanted to know. Though well-meant, her question spawned so many sub-questions and sub-sub-questions that for a time, the bar was thrown into a chaotic hubbub that only died down when the landlord threatened us with eviction.

Only slowly was the order necessary for reasoned debate restored. When I felt confident that my fellow drinkers were ready to proceed once more with our enquiry, I ventured that pigeon toes were in fact an affliction. Who, I demanded to know, could possibly find them attractive?

On this point, at least, my companions were of a single mind until, that is, the bar’s resident historian, who had until then maintained a dignified, if drunken silence, chose to pipe up with a theory that put the debate, and with it the bar’s clientele, to bed for the night.

“Pigeon toes are indeed an affliction,” he intoned grandly. “But that’s the point. Japan is a patriarchal society and, being patriarchs, its men like to see women looking disabled. Pigeon toes are an emblem of their inferior status, their limited ability, and their inherent weakness.” With that, he fell off his chair, which the assembled company took as their cue to go home.

“Does this mean that women only walk pigeon-toed while they’re in male company,” I demanded to know. “Do they revert back to a normal gait once in the privacy of their own homes?”

But it was too late. The bar was now quite empty, bar me and the fallen historian. The first beams of dawn sunlight were stealing through the shuttered window, and I was left with only my perennial questions for company.

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© grape Japan

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Love this humorous article and my friends have also had many a discussion on the mysterious pigeon walk phenomena here yet the answer remains as elusive as ever. One of Japan, many enigmas :)

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I was impressed - but not for long. One of the Worrisome Kilt’s veteran skeptics pointed out that the medical student’s theory would be plausible if sitting on one’s legs were still commonplace in Japan but, as even the most recent arrival will tell you, very few people sit on their calves or the floor anymore.

That might be true in public spaces, but it is still common place at many traditional and or crowded homes and in elementary school and Pre-K. Also, people who live very small apartments are more likely to still sit on the floor. They either use a futon or do not want to lay in a bed all day.

Natural selection, conscious effort, cultural behaviors like sitting on the floor in certain positions and wearing kimonos.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Have occasionally seen it in Japanese TV shows and movies, but not among Japanese visitors, so I have assumed it was an acquired trait. No idea why someone would intentionally walk that way. Perhaps it is considered feminine?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The average Japanese salary man seems unafflicted by the pigeon foot as they stride their way through densely populated areas clasping their smartphones and leaving behind a trail of solipsistic destruction. So I doubt it has much to do with the traditional Japanese seiza sitting position.

You do see drunk salary men staggering around with loose ties and unbuttoned shirts clutching briefcases at their chests at around 3am. But I'd classify that as more of a wobbly velociraptor or a transitioning zombie clinging to its final strands of fast fading humanity than a pigeon foot manoeuvre.

My mypothesis is that it's considered attractive by many Japanese men. Perhaps to do with the patriarchy argument put forth by the respectful Drunken Historian. The constant infantilization of women in this country seems to get worse and more rampant every year. The subservient, pigeon footed, high school girl who worships your every fart and nose hair with childish glee seems to be the Japanese beauty standard of the modern age.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Japanese mothers used to carry their children in a sling on their backs, not their hips.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

There are a variety of reasons for "pigeon toedness" the most common in Japan most likely being weak hip muscles. When I was a little kid (many moons ago) my mom took me to the doctor. One of his first questions was to ask if I sat on the floor with my legs bent at the knees and splayed out behind me (called W sitting). Apparently this weakens the musculature within the hip. Those muscles play a big role in helping the average person walk with feet pointing forward. If you are really interested in this phenomenon here is a great article:

However, I believe that here pigeon toedness, particularly in younger women, is a common thing here because it's accepted as being "cute" like the horribly mangled teeth and vampire fangs we see all too often. It's disempowering for women, to make them look infantile, to not care about how they carry themselves, after really looks terrible. On the same note, why do grown men wear shoes that are a size too big and drag them when they walk making an absolutely horrible noise? Why do women here wear sandals a size or two too small so that their toes are splayed out the front? Why Japan...why?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Interesting. I've always assumed it was due to all the short skirts and dodgy guys.

A combination of the Japanese short-skirted schoolgirl thing, the riding bikes in short skirts, the riding the trains and going up stairs in crowded stations in short skirts thing.

Which also continues into working life, with many more young female workers wearing skirts here.

The prevalence of high heels might have an effect too, although I feel that's going down a bit recently.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I go with the "cute" argument.

Uchimata is far less than it was 25 years ago when I came here, as is talking in an overly high voice.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Yes, that full nappy waddle. I remember seeing some teenage tourists in a hotel in Manchester in full goth gear, waddling round the hotel lobby looking gormless, and I remember thinking they probably had some developmental issue. Then I came here and worked in a high school, and full 80% of the students waddled in the same way. I do remember thinking it works okay if you’re wearing a yukata or kimono, but in a short skirt and the loose socks they wore at that time, they looked like a parody of an anime character. I reckon if you do it for enough years it becomes second nature, and you probably twist tendons and muscles out of whack, until you can’ t stop even if you try. Just idle musings though.

I can well believe that it’s either a turn on for many Japanese males, or else the girls think it’s kako iiiiii, and don’t care whether men like it or not.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Just about as cute as duck lips or high-octave squeaky voices. Stupidity is sexy, they say.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

In my opinion the reason is more prosaic...wearing a kimono requires a short stride (almost a shuffle) and to keep the geta on requires a pigeon-toed walk. Also my cousin ( a Japanese bloke), walks this way because of wearing slippers indoors.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

All these pseudo-medical theories in the comments are kinda funny. Many Chinese have a different way of walking too (feet splayed out, hands swinging loosely by the hips) just as many Americans (stiff, aggressive gait) or east Africans (long loping strides) and other countries and cultures do. Of course there are exceptions and no one country has a single type of stride, but the idea that it is caused by seiza, or due to "weak hip muscles" or "w sitting" or "slipper wearing" or "short skirts" is all silly speculation that misses the more obvious but also more complex roots of cultural norms. Yes, the walk does work with tight-fitting kimono, or with short skirts, but it's likely wrong to think one caused the other. These things don't have a clear cause-effect structure, because culture is evolving simultaneously in various ways: clothing, language, style and even walking styles. They all impact one another in various feedback loops.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

There is nothing wrong with Japanese girls feet, walk or stance. Nothing. Leave the Japanese girls alone.

Us guys dont walk too great, especially after we have had a few beers, do we?

So we cant criticise anyone can we?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Have occasionally seen it in Japanese TV shows and movies, but not among Japanese visitors, so I have assumed it was an acquired trait. No idea why someone would intentionally walk that way. Perhaps it is considered feminine?

It looks childishly stupid. If you walk pigeon toed because of some physical handicap that’s one thing, to do it as a sign of coyness, I’m sorry, I personally don’t find anything sexy about it, more annoying than anything. Funny, you don’t usually see little girls walking like that, but then in Highschool you start to see it more frequently.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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