In Japan, a backlash against mandatory high heels is sparking a wider conversation around women’s rights in the workplace.

In January this year, a freelance writer, model and actress in Tokyo named Yumi Ishikawa complained on Twitter about the torture of being forced to wear high heels for her part-time job as a funeral services assistant.

Ishikawa, 33, combined the Japanese word for shoe, kutsu, and the word for pain, kutsuu, and #KuToo was born. Japan’s high-heel requirement for women, which is common across industries, was a form of gender discrimination, she claimed, and resulted in real harm—bunions, blistering and bleeding—which men were not subjected to.

Since then, an online petition she started urging the government to make it illegal for employers to force employees to wear high heels has garnered 31,000 signatures, resonating with women of all ages across Japan. She submitted the petition to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in June, with no success.

Japan is not alone in its high heel dress code, of course. High heels are considered de rigueur around the world for various corporate jobs, flight attendants, and famously on the red carpet at Cannes. But it’s particularly pervasive in corporate Japan, where dress codes for both men and women tend to be strict.

Ishikawa has her detractors. Some don’t see what the fuss is about. Others think her background as a pin-up model somehow disqualifies her from speaking up about gender rights. But her message has struck a chord with many.

In October 2019, Ishikawa made the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world, alongside activists, journalists, athletes and scientists. In the last week of October 2019, she launched a brand of flat shoes—KuToo Follower—styled like men’s lace-ups, but in smaller sizes to fit women.

Below, Ishikawa speaks with us about her political awakening and the fight ahead.

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Tell us about the episode that started it all – your job working in a funeral parlour.

I worked as an assistant helping to make sure funeral services went smoothly and helping guests to navigate the funeral parlour to offer condolences. At that time, I was required to wear pumps with a 5 to 7 cm heel. Each ceremony takes three to four hours and sometimes there were two ceremonies a day, so I was on my feet for six to eight hours a day.

My feet hurt and my toes were bleeding.

How did you go from painful toes to launching a full-blown campaign in the style of #MeToo?

At the end of 2017, I actually tweeted #MeToo about my experience working in the entertainment world. I heard back from other people who suffered sexual harassment and forced sexual activity. Women were telling me they had the same experience and that what I had experienced was harassment. I got a lot of sympathetic reactions.

But the media in Japan did not take #MeToo seriously, especially TV, which didn’t feature it at all. They just treated it as gossip. The web media covered it well. After that, I started to study gender issues.

At the time, I was working as a clerk in an office. My employer blamed me for not telling them about my tweet in advance and treated me like a troublesome employee. So I left the job. I began temping so I didn’t have to be bound by the rules of any one company. I was despatched to a funeral services company. When I started #KuToo this year, I knew what I was doing was connected to this gender issue. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind.

At the end of the day, I ended up resigning from the funeral services job for a different reason. I was featured in a lot of news, especially with the petition campaign. Strangers were coming in to look for me because they wanted to check if such a rule really exists or not!

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What response have you gotten to your #KuToo online petition to the government to make it illegal for employers to insist on high heels?

Thirty-one thousand women have signed it now. Most women support it saying they felt the same way but couldn’t voice it.

As for men, they are divided. One group says they didn’t know about such a requirement and understand why it would hurt and that it should be okay for women to wear flat leather shoes like men. The rest say they don’t believe there is such a rule, or that women are lying about their feet hurting or that they just have to accept the rules. They say women have to look beautiful and that men’s leather shoes also sometimes hurt. They ask, are you saying you want to wear sneakers?

How has the government responded?

The government is very passive in general. They said it is a custom for women to wear pumps. Unless the custom changes, nothing will change. They told me I have to put more momentum into the movement. I was told by the government we don’t have that definition of gender discrimination.

What’s the next step?

People think this sort of social activism is weird and queer. Many people who try sort of give up. They think, even if I do something, nothing will change.

I started this small movement and if I can change society, then maybe I can inspire others to do the same. I am very honoured to be on the BBC list of 100 women. It is important to be visible.

I am working with a shoemaker to launch a shoe without a heel that women can wear in a business setting. It is like men’s leather shoes with laces, but in women’s sizes. Right now, men’s shoes do not have smaller sizes for women or if they do, they are very expensive.

It is called KuToo Follower shoes.

I also wrote a book “#KuToo: Real feminism from shoes” launching in November. And I am speaking on diversity at a Bloomberg conference in Tokyo in December.

The shoe issue has brought up the issue of wider differences.

I used to model for a sexy gravure magazine. Many people think gravure models have no right to speak up about discrimination or harassment because they are in a job where they use their femininity. Before, I used to accept this too.

But I realized that everyone has a right to not be discriminated against. They have a right to get angry and they have a right to a voice.