My Feet, My Business: Yumi Ishikawa and the High-Heeled Rebellion

Yumi Ishikawa, leader and founder of the #KuToo movement, poses after a press conference in Tokyo on June 3, 2019.

Source CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/Getty

Why you should care

Because feet have very little to do with anyone’s bottom line.

There’s a kernel of contrarianism that fuels some of the best social movements. Movements that, if history is any judge, have traditionally begun when one, or some, people get to “enough,” or maybe “too much,” and put their feet down. In the instance of Japan’s Yumi Ishikawa, 32, that moment came, almost literally, with an online meditation on the business case for requiring Japanese women to wear high-heeled shoes, footwear that helps little with professional jobs that don’t involve “entertainment.”

“This is a problem that many women believed was a personal issue because [wearing high heels] is generally seen as good etiquette,” said Ishikawa, an actress, part-time worker and writer, at a news conference Monday in Tokyo. She spoke just after she had submitted a labor ministry petition with 18,856 signatures, women mostly, signed on to ban dress codes that require women to wear high heels at work.

It put a finer point on her frustrations with her part-time funeral parlor gig where, yes, she had to wear high heels because, presumably, dead people care about such things.

 

Calling it gender-based workplace discrimination — men can, unsurprisingly, wear whatever footwear they choose — Ishikawa kicked off the #KuToo movement, a portmanteau of Japanese words for shoes (kutsu) and pain (kutsuu), and #MeToo. And she kicked it off in a thoroughly modern way: complaining about it on Twitter. The complaint quickly drew notice, getting 67,000 likes and 30,000 retweets, as it put a finer point on her frustrations with her part-time funeral parlor gig where, yes, she had to wear high heels because, presumably, dead people care about such things.

“We were also repeatedly told how difficult enacting a law to counter gender harassment and discrimination can be,” Ishikawa said. But, she noted, “I believe this is an urgent issue.” The demand was similar to that of 150,000 people who signed a petition in the U.K. to outlaw workplace requirements on high-heeled footwear after Nicola Thorp, a temp worker, was sent home without pay for a high-heeled refusal. The year? 2016. The law? Unchanged.

 

There have been continual flickers of workplace weirdness around non-work-performance issues that disproportionately fall on women. In 2010, Melissa Nelson, a 33-year-old Iowa dental assistant, was fired by her dentist boss of 10 years for being too attractive. She sued. And she lost. Debrahlee Lorenzana, 33, was fired by Citibank in New York City for being too sexy. She sued. Her lawsuit was dismissed. And 32-year-old Dilek Edwards, a yoga instructor, was fired by her employer for similar grounds. She sued. And the judge presiding on her case ruled against her, though an appeals judge in New York ruled in Edwards’ favor. 

“If your job is to sit behind a desk for 10 hours a day,” says Chikako Sagawa, a former high-tech employee, “how could shoes possibly make a difference?” Sagawa, an ex-pat who left Japan to design, curiously enough, shoes in Spain, blames longstanding cultural mores. “So that tells me that it’s less about shoes and more about supporting a status quo.” The status quo was not created by women but is likely to be framed by them if Ishikawa has her way.

“Ideally we’d like a new law,” Ishikawa told reporters. “I’d like social perceptions to change so that women wearing formal flat shoes becomes standard.” And if it doesn’t become standard, then at least flats should be one of the options available to women in a workplace that probably has many more serious issues to contend with. 

On the flipside, if you’re wondering how long men could get away with choosing to wear high heels in the workplace, there are a few people ahead of you — specifically designer Francesco Russo, who last year launched a stiletto line for both women and men. “I think it’s in our duty as people to produce product to respond to the world,” he told Vogue. And how’d the line do? It was so popular that it’s now become a standard part of his brand.

Because? Well, because it’s probably nice to have choices. It would also be nice if an epidemic of mind-your-own-business-itis were to take the business world by storm. “It is hard enough to do a hard job,” Sagawa says, “without worrying about what you’re going to wear on your feet to work.”

 

 

 

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