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Japanese official calls high-heel mandates for women at work "necessary and appropriate," dismissing "KuToo" movement

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

Tokyo -- Japanese women are saying, "No," to high heels in what's been dubbed the #KuToo movement, a play on the words for "shoes" and "agony" and an allusion to the #MeToo hashtag. The #MeToo movement has not caught on in Japan, where speaking out often draws criticism rather than sympathy, even from other women.

"This is about gender discrimination," Yumi Ishikawa, 32, an actress and writer, who started the movement, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "It's the view that appearances are more important for women at work than for men."

It is a view not shared, apparently, by Japan's government.

Earlier this week, Ishikawa handed the labor ministry a petition that she began online, protesting many companies' requirements that their female staff wear pumps and heels. The petition had collected 18,856 signatures.

But when asked about the petition in a parliamentary committee hearing on Wednesday, Takumi Nemoto, the minister of labor, appeared to defend heels-on-the-job.

"It is socially accepted as something that falls within the realm of being occupationally necessary and appropriate," he told the lawmakers.

An October 2, 2018 file photo shows Japan's Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto speaking during a press conference in Tokyo. Getty

Employees' health and safety need to be protected, but work is varied, said Nemoto, who oversees the country's workplace reforms.

The debate over heels began in January with tweets by Ishikawa about her frustration over being required to wear 2-inch heels for her part-time job as a receptionist at a funeral parlor.

"I like my job right now but wearing pumps is really so hard," one of her tweets said. "Of course, if you want to wear them, please go ahead."

Japanese laws guarantee gender equality, but critics like Ishikawa have long complained such ideals aren't playing out in real life.

Men in Japan are, of course, not required to wear heels, though many do wear business suits, crisply ironed dress shirts and ties. For hotter summer months, many offices have an official "cool" short-sleeves, no tie dress code. Many Japanese also take off their street shoes and wear slippers or sandals while inside their offices.

Japan ranked 110th in the latest World Economic Forum ranking on gender equality, which benchmarks 149 nations on the treatment of women, such as educational attainment and health hazards.

Women elsewhere, including the U.S., Canada and Europe, have also protested dress and makeup requirements and having to wear heels. The red carpet at Cannes, infamous for its strict dress code, has seen celebrities walking barefoot in defiance.

Ishikawa said she hoped to win over fashion designers to make more comfortable footwear that's acceptable as formal wear.

She sees the #KuToo movement as a way to raise awareness about sexism.

"Shoes are so everyday," she said. "People can more directly see the issues of people's dignity and rights, and so shoes may lead to a better world."

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