Sexist Dress Codes in Japan

In the latest headline to provoke discussion over sexism in Japan, it has been discovered that some Japanese companies are not allowing female employees to wear glasses as they believe it contradicts the desired feminine image expected from female workers.

Social media in Japan has been flooded with the news that women working on makeup counters were told that they were not allowed to wear glasses, as it did not fit with the company image, and must instead wear contact lenses. The women complained that long periods of wearing the lenses made their eyes dry and sensitive. Similar complaints have also come from cosmetic nurses with outrage over how it could limit how effectively they can carry out their job. Whilst some might argue that it is simply company policy to not allow visible prescription eyewear, campaigners have pointed to male colleagues are allowed to continue wearing glasses whilst women are told to remove them.

This discussion of female beauty standards and sexism in Japan was initially sparked by claims that women were being instructed to wear heels to work or risk losing their jobs. The #KuToo movement, named after the #MeToo movement in the West, has emerged in reaction to the unequal standards expected of women in the workplace in Japan. Kumiko Nemoto, Professor of Sociology at Kyoto University, argues that the movement has emerged in reaction to what are clearly “outdated” Japanese policies that are “pretty discriminatory.”

Japanese writer Yumi Ishikawa started a petition to end the practice of forcing female employees to wear heels after she complained of back pain and long-lasting feet disfigurement. Whilst the matter attracted great interest on social media and over 17,000 people signing a petition, the Japanese Health Minister responded by stating that heels were “occupationally necessary and appropriate.” Whilst legally many companies do not require their employees to wear high heels, many women feel they have to wear heels as it is traditional and socially expected for them to do so.

It might be easy to make a clear comparison to the West, which is radically more equal than countries like Japan that continues outdated practices. But, it is important to note that many outdated, sexist practices exist in most countries in the West today too. Many companies in the UK put pressure on their female employees to wear heels and there still is, despite some attempts to break it down, a societal expectation that women will wear heels to work.

The Japanese women’s liberation movement initially grew around the same time as second-wave movements were growing in Europe and the US in the 1970s. Whilst many have suggested that the women’s liberation movement in Japan was imported from the US, it can be seen to have had different aims. The European and American movements focused on equal rights and pay, whereas the Japanese movement wanted to change the repressed role women were forced to play and how they were expected to be. Now, Japanese feminists are taking to social media to voice concern and drum up support for the changes they want to see, much like how feminists and social justice campaigners all over the world. Feminist movements in different countries, though having some universal aims, have different priorities based on the culture and political climate. The Japanese movement’s current focus is on sexist discourse, laws, reproductive expectations and also sexual liberation for women.

Just because the feminist movement in Japan is different from that of the West, it does not mean it is in any way inferior. There has been an active feminist movement in Japan, at least in recent years, for the same amount of time as there has been one in the UK. Japanese feminists utilise social media in the same ways that feminists in the West do. One country’s brand of feminism is no better than another’s. It is important to remember when branding Japan as sexist that there are still clear aspects of sexism in the West and a gender pay gap in most countries of the world. The unequal standards in workplace attire, although not necessarily a key priority for Western feminists today, are something that Japanese campaigners and activists are actively trying to improve.

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