Japan’s Health and Labour Minister Takumi Nemoto has caused a stir this week after publicly defending workplace policies that require women to wear high heels to work. The Minister’s comments argued that such requirements were socially accepted as being both ‘necessary and appropriate’ and were made after a petition was filed against the practice.

The petition, submitted to the labour ministry on Tuesday, raises health and safety concerns regarding the requirement, labelling it sexist and outdated. The minister unfortunately did not sympathise with the plight – equating high heels with a level of femininity which is considered to be a social norm within Japanese culture.

Dubbed the ‘#kutoo’ movement, (stemming from a combination of the Japanese word for shoes ‘kutsu’, ‘kutsuu’ meaning pain, and also a nod to the popularised global ‘#metoo’ movement against sexual abuse), the petition continues to gain traction on the online platform Change.org which at the time of writing had received nearly 30,0000 signatures.

The conversation into the issue blew up after actress Yumi Ishikawa tweeted about her personal experience with wearing high heels in the workplace, in Japan. The tweet sparked hundreds of responses online from other women putting forward personal accounts of the difficulties faced in the workplace with regards to mandatory policies or social pressure to wear heels at work.

Some people (such as Minister Takumi Nemoto) may not find such policies to be an issue – after all high heels have long been a staple of women’s corporate attire, and some women do choose to wear them voluntarily. There is also the argument that a pair of heels for a women is as a neck tie is for a man – simply corporate workplace attire, power dressing – the norm.

The difference between the two however is that no item of men’s clothing carries with it such significant health and safety issues. High heels have been shown to change the wearer’s walking pattern and can put extra pressure on knee joints which may lead to osteoarthritis (the erosion of cartilage between bones). There is also the added safety risk regarding trip hazards, and Yumi Ishikawa highlighted in relation to Japan in particular – that wearing heels in a country that is prone to earthquakes may greatly reduce a women’s chance of avoiding danger in an emergency situation.

From a UK perspective, as you may recall, the Government released some useful guidance last year into workplace dress codes – which was produced following another petition on the issue which received over 152,420 signatures, earning the right to be debated in parliament. The petition was started after a Nicola Thorp, female worker on a temporary assignment was sent home without pay for refusing to comply with a company dress code making high heels mandatory.

The guidance was in place to ensure that employers are aware that they need to strike a balance with workplace dress code policies to ensure they strike a balance between wanting their employees to look professional and ensuring that female workers were supported and not discriminated against.  

In promoting the ‘#Kutoo’ petition Ms Ishikawa said – ‘I hope this campaign will change the social norm so that it won’t be considered to be bad manners when women wear flat shoes, like men’.