[VoxSpace Selects] The #KuToo Movement And Japan’s Sexist Laws In Corporate Workplaces

The Curious Case Of Heels

When heels were first introduced in the 15th century in Persia, they served a highly functional purpose. Mostly worn by men on horsebacks, the heels in retrospect might seem like an instance of cross-dressing and gender-bending. However, heels were not meant for the women folk; they were worn by men and perhaps even designed by them. Even before heels became a gendered object of haute couture, it bore connotations of nobility and aristocracy. Louis XIV of France not only wore them but also asked his courtiers to do the same. It is hard to miss the fact that heels have long been identified as a signifier of class. By the 19th century, the use of heels among women became more popular. Since then, heels have been in vogue.

However, the pain caused due to heels can hardly be exaggerated. Besides, due to its gendered association, women who prefer to wear flats are often shamed. The discomfort that they might have felt is not even acknowledged in the first place. High heels became all the more controversial and attracted public attention ever since actresses Julia Roberts and Kristen Stewart, both of whom to the dismay of many, went barefoot at Cannes. From corporate workplaces to international film festivals, flawed sexist rules continue to reign.

 How The #KuToo Movement Seeks To Question Sexism In Japan

Centuries later, the stilettos that have been long associated and laden with implications, such as power, financial sufficiency, and sexuality sparked off a debate in Japan. The #KuToo movement was spearheaded by Yumi Ishikawa, an actor and a freelancer who lashed against the faulty and sexist corporate laws.  The #KuToo movement which has garnered global attention is not only about women seeking to overhaul a corporate culture that turns a deaf ear when asked to ban heels at the workplace, but it is also about the wider connotations of autonomy in workplaces.

Women continue to suffer and complain about backache and sore feet caused because of wearing heels. However, even though it could mobilize supporters, the government’s backing of heels in workplaces as obligatory, makes it look like mandated suffering that one has to comply with in order to be able to pay bills.  Seems like Japan’s labor ministry supports the clampdown on women’s freedom to choose, buttressing it with dictums like “necessary and appropriate” (Al Jazeera).

The question that haunts us time and again: ‘who gets to decide?’

Like Nicola Thorp, who was required to wear heels but lost her job for refusing to wear them, Ishikawa too had to conform to the set of rules for her part-time job.  She has faced vehement backlash for attempting to quash discriminatory dress codes. The #KuToo movement uses the two words. ‘Kutsu’ (meaning shoes) and kutsuu (meaning pain) playfully to emphasize on the pain caused by wearing heels.  Ishikawa’s petition was supported and signed by nearly 20,000 women. The British government, which faced a similar situation in the past, rejected a bill which could have played an exemplary role if it had been passed in the Parliament. Ministers and men in power who rule the roost in corporate organizations remain undeterred and averse to change. Nevertheless, individual experiences testify to the urgency of reframing the existing laws.

Takumi Nemoto, Japan’s labor minister, defended such codes as appropriate. Despite that, the difference in treatment at workplaces cannot be ironed out and personal narratives speak quite to the contrary. As long as the system does not grant women the autonomy to choose whether to wear or to ditch their heels, a majority of women, irrespective of their professions, have to put up with this occupational hazard.

#KuToo And Other Sister Movements Across The Globe

The #KuToo Movement brings to mind other sister movements, like the #MeToo and ‘Escape the Corset’. Each of these movements had different aspirations when birthed. They followed different trajectories. But, they are similar in their efforts to resist patriarchy and sexist codes. The idea of perfect femininity is a lie that we like to tell and project. It is the most saleable product in the market with advertisements whooping with joy. At the end of the day, it boils down to one thing. The discourses of patriarchy show itself in both nuanced and glaring ways but are sidetracked as insignificant.

Unfortunately, there has always been a tendency to dismiss women’s narratives as frivolous and petty. Thus, before it gained momentum, women who outed sexual offenders were doubted, while the offenders were given clean chits. In Japan, women are told to bear with the pain. Not just directly but indirectly. Because in a similar way their personal narratives are brushed off. To put things into perspective, according to the World Economic Forum’s rankings, Japan is placed at 110th position among 149 countries in terms of gender equality (The Diplomat).

Twitterati stormed the social media towards the beginning of the year when South Korean women decided to fling their makeup kit in the air, ending an era of step-by-step beauty regimen. These sister movements are particular to their contexts, yet they bear an important message: questioning the system is more relevant than asking individuals to toe the line. Sexist practices cannot be justified or normalized just because they have been around for a long time.