— Yumi Ishikawa, founder of Japan’s #KuToo movement.
The first time Yumi Ishikawa, a Japanese model, actress and temp worker, took to social media to call for an end to employers requiring female workers to wear high heels, her tweet was shared nearly 30,000 times. “Why do we have to work while hurting our feet?” she wrote in January, highlighting the explicit gender discrimination in such workplace policies. “Whereas men can wear flat shoes.”
Seizing on the social media commiseration, she gathered 18,000 signatures on a petition she submitted to the labor ministry calling for a law that would bar employers from forcing women to wear heels. Ms. Ishikawa, 32, went on to become the public face of Japan’s #KuToo movement, a pun on the Japanese words for shoes (kutsu) and pain (kutsuu).
Wearing high heels is not the only dress standard that some employers in Japan demand of female workers. Some companies ban women in public-facing jobs from wearing glasses (a requirement that recently sparked backlash on social media), while others require hosiery and makeup. Men, too, can also be subject to dress codes, such as a requirement to wear suits.
In response to Ms. Ishikawa’s petition, the labor ministry has said it needs to “raise awareness” of the issue, but has not said how it plans to do that. And since the hashtag #KuToo went viral, two major cellphone service providers, Softbank and NTT Docomo, have relaxed dress codes, and they permit women to wear shoes without high heels — although Docomo says its changes have nothing to do with the movement.
Ms. Ishikawa says she never intended to make high heels her signature issue. But she’s not surprised it’s the topic that has gotten the most attention so far. “It’s very easy to understand why it’s so important,” she said.
We checked in with Ms. Ishikawa to learn more about the person behind the movement. She showed up for the interview in Tokyo wearing — you guessed it — sneakers. Excerpts follow.
As a child, did you buck against rigid gender codes in dress, such as in Japanese school uniforms?
In elementary school, I didn’t really like wearing skirts. I wanted to be able to wear clothes like boys or talk the way they talked. My parents often scolded me because I talked in a quite rough way. It was believed to be not ideal for girls. It’s not that I wanted to be a boy, but I kept thinking, “Why can’t I talk the same way as boys?”
As a junior high school student, I had many opinions about school rules. Wearing a scarf was banned in wintertime, and students were ordered to wear only one type of coat or jacket in the winter, and tights were banned in winter for girls, and also braids were banned. But at that time the teachers seemed quite scary, so I didn’t dare to confront them. With high school entrance exams, I didn’t want to be regarded as a disobedient type of student in my school marks.
Did you talk to your classmates to see if they felt the same way? Did you ever feel like you could speak out together?
From middle school through high school, we always had the feeling that we weren’t supposed to express our opinions. I felt a kind of tacit pressure on women. Women were not supposed to talk much or speak out as much as men did. Rather, they are expected to respect men. And through various media and TV programs, that message came across.
You work as a model. What is the culture of modeling in Japan?
When I first worked as a swimsuit model for videos and magazines, I got the impression that female models were not respected enough. Editors or directors did not regard our opinions at all. There was no real physical violence, but the agents or editors would force models to do things they did not want to do, even until they cried. Images that I did not consent to be published, were published anyway. They made me put on swimsuits that exposed more of my body than I wanted, and yet they ran the photos.
At that time, I believed that was an unavoidable thing as a model. The adults around me were saying, “This won’t sell unless you do this.” The other female models themselves would say, “We just have to accept it.” But after 2017’s #MeToo movement, I finally realized that this could be a crime, and it was very natural for me to get upset or angry at these demands.
You have said that advocating for a ban on high heel requirements is not the only cause you are fighting for. What are some of the other issues that you think are important for women in Japan?
If a woman is sexually progressive or assertive, people criticize you. I want to change these attitudes. For example, if you pose nude, people will criticize you or try to take you down. [Earlier this year, Ms. Ishikawa posed nude for a feminist collection of essays and photographs.]
Sometimes it’s taboo for women to talk about sexual topics and it could lead to sexual crimes against her. People think you’ll just sleep with anyone. A woman should be allowed to decide with whom she wants to have sex. People often say that because you are a nude model, you have to put up with sexual harassment or assault. It’s as if because you dress sexually, you deserve to be a victim of groping or harassment. But that is so wrong.
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The University of Tokyo, known locally as Todai, is considered Japan’s equivalent of Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. all rolled into one. Many of the country’s prime ministers and more than half of Japan’s Supreme Court justices are Todai alumni.
This disparity extends across many top colleges in Japan, reflecting deep-seated gender inequality in a country where women are not expected to achieve as much as men, and sometimes hold themselves back from educational opportunities.
University administrators have compounded the problem. At Tokyo Medical University, officials admitted to suppressing the entrance-exam scores of female applicants for years in order to limit the proportion of women to 30 percent.
The rationale? Female doctors were likely to stop working after getting married or giving birth, they said.
Today’s In Her Words is written by The New York Times’s Tokyo bureau chief, Motoko Rich, and edited by Francesca Donner. Hisako Ueno in Tokyo contributed reporting. Our art director is Catherine Gilmore-Barnes, and our photo editor is Sandra Stevenson.