Things I don’t Understand about Tokyo: Why do women wear high heels all the time?

No joke, I saw these heels on a woman walking through Imperial palace

No joke, I saw these heels on a woman walking through Imperial palace

My self-esteem took a huge hit when I got to Tokyo. Before living in Tokyo, I thought I dressed chic. I love fashion, especially suit coats, heels, and skirts. My parents sent me news clippings or articles about the dangers of high heels; friends would regularly ask me to help them pick an outfit or do their make-up for dates, important events, or conferences.

Outfit from America

Everything changed when I got to Tokyo.

It wasn’t my first time in Japan; I spent three months in the Osaka region back in the summer of 2011 and spent a year up in Hokkaido between 2006 and 2007. However, Tokyo has its own style – a style that puts mine to shame.

Specifically, Japanese women look incredibly presentable, all the time.

Why I don’t understand it:

I walk a lot in Tokyo. Like, all the time. Everywhere. When I’m not walking, I’m usually standing on a train. Or waiting in line. And do you know what makes waiting in line even worse? Hurting feet.

I don’t wear heels when I go into main Tokyo, because after a couple hours, I start to feel miserable. I can enjoy the city so much more when my feet aren’t trapped in time-bomb-ish heels. One minute I’m fine, and then BOOM, I’m walking on small knives.

Cute High heels in Japan

That’s where my priorities are – comfort over fashion. And that’s how I know I will never belong in Tokyo: I don’t dress up to the standard.

I hit my all-time low a couple weeks ago, when I went out shopping in Shibuya with two of my Japanese friends from ICU (the Japanese university I am studying abroad at). Shibuya is one of the nicer, chic areas of Tokyo, so we dressed up a bit. We were all wearing heels; after a couple hours, my feet hurt so I pulled us over to a café for a break and a cup of coffee.

We chatted for a bit, but when I stood up to go to the bathroom, I realized my feet hurt. Embarrassed, I told them since my feet were still hurting, I was going to head back to campus after we took Purikura (Japanese photo booth). My other two friends let out a sign of relief; their feet had been hurting too, but neither wanted to be the first to say it.

One of them, a new freshman at ICU, told us (rather proudly) she had been periodically disappearing into the bathroom to put Band-Aids on her blistering feet. She was wearing white, lacy socks with her heels, so I couldn’t see the Band-Aids… but I felt a bit ashamed.

Cute high heels in America

I would never sacrifice my own personal comfort for something as silly as heels. Once we separated and I got on a train back home, I pulled out a pair of black Fast-Flats (foldable shoes) my dad gave me, and shoved my older heels into one of my shopping bags. I could have changed shoes in front of my friends and continued shopping… but I felt embarrassed. Like somehow I wasn’t good enough – like switching from heels to foldable flats was a sign of weakness.

I’ve seen this Japanese friend since then. She’s still wearing the same shoes. They still give her blisters, but she said in a couple months, he feet would “get used to it.”

It moments like that where I don’t feel adequate. Tokyo makes me feel like if I’m not sacrificing anything for fashion, I’m not living correctly. Of course, there are plenty of Japanese women who don’t subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” approach to beauty… but I think the overwhelming majority do.

Why I kind of DO understand it:

I love high heels because they make me feel sexy and powerful. I love the way heels look on me and I love the way that other women look in heels. I love the way high heels change my walk, the way they make my legs look, that extra height boost they give me, and the physical appearance of the heels. A great pair of high heels can change everything.

Typical outfit in America

My fiancé doesn’t understand why I have trouble picking out outfits in the morning. I guess most boyfriends don’t understand how girls view fashion.

He always says: “I already love you; you don’t have to impress me.”

“Girls don’t dress nicely to impress guys; they dress nicely to impress other girls.”

“That doesn’t even make sense…”

“Yes it does. Ok, how about this? Does it match?”

I understand wanting to look nice. The right pair of high heels can make anyone look awesome.

Final thoughts:

I will never understand the “no pain, no gain” approach to beauty. A society should never teach its children that without physical pain or discomfort, they are not beautiful.

In the end, I have to thank Tokyo, because it taught me that my own comfort is worth more than what anyone else says.

By far my favorite picture of High School Prom.

By far my favorite picture of High School Prom.

My first exposure to sexism in Japan was this book written from the perspective of an American woman who worked in a Japanese company. Needless to say, she didn’t like her job very much and found the entire encounter very sexist:  The Accidental Office Lady: An American Woman in Corporate Japan

For other “Things I don’t Understand About Japan” posts, check out:

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

33 Comments on Things I don’t Understand about Tokyo: Why do women wear high heels all the time?

  1. Okay, comparing me (brought up in Australia) and my female cousin (brought up in Japan)…

    I wear comfortable bras and bras according to the occasion (sports bra for active days, mocha seamless for T-shirts, etc), and the bras don’t necessary match my shorts :-p
    My cousin wear lacy bras all the time and matching shorts.

    I only wear makeup for special occasions. When I was told to wear makeup for certain jobs, I only spent 15 minutes on my hair and face.
    My cousin spent 90 minutes on grooming and makeup until she was pregnant.

    My shoes are mostly flat or low heeled. I have several high-heels, but on average, I wear a pair every fortnight.
    My cousin (after highschool and before she had her first child) owned one pair of running shoes (which had a hidden compartment and was actually constructed as a high-heel), one pair of worn out floppy sandals, and all her other shoes were high-heeled (more than 20 pairs, I’m guessing). She wore high-heels app 360 days a year (hmm, maybe less, because she turned into a hermit now and then, hehe).

    When I was in my teens, I never purchased “fashion” magazines in Australia, because the main content was about gossips and sexy tips, and I didn’t think “fashion” magazines actually provided any info about what to wear (they just gave ads).
    My cousin continued to purchase fashion magazines, and followed the fashion tips religiously until she got married. She and her friends told me, when they were in college, that they had to follow the latest fashion trends illustrated in the magazines.

    I bought 2 fashion magazines after I started living in Tokyo, and always flicked through them when I was waiting at the doctors/dentists. If magazines were the fashion bible of Japanese women, then Japanese women have no choice but to wear heavy makeup and high-heels! All “business casual outfits” worn by the ZASSHI models (I refuse to call them “fashion models” lol) have perfect blow dried & sprayed hair, cleavage-free shirts, dry cleaned jackets, designer scarves/belts/necklaces, pantyhoses, and of course, high-heels.

    I think Japanese women want to? (are pushed to?) look like those ZASSHI models ALL THE TIME!

    • I know! I think so too.
      I started reading American fashion magazines when I was in college (literally, READ THROUGH MY FIRST MAGAZINE). My mom is this super awesome PhD working-woman… and she only dons makeup for weddings and huge ceremonies. She has a classy, comfortable look (she’s a professor) – and her heels are always practical and comfortable (but she usually sticks to flats).
      So I kind of grew up seeing that as normal. I’m so glad I had her as a role model. She also never purchased fashion/gossip magazines, so my first exposure to those were in college.

      Culture really does make all the difference in the world.
      I do have American friends who have a pretty lengthy make-up routine, but that is pretty unusual.
      I remember my husband was surprised how “obvious” makeup in America was, like the thick eyeliner and mascara. When we were in Japan, he kept pointing to girls and being like “see, they’re not wearing makeup! A bunch of Japanese girls don’t wear makeup!”
      And of course they WERE wearing makeup – foundation, concealer, liner, eyeshadow, blush, mascara, eyebrow mascara – he just couldn’t really recognize it.

      I know quite a few Japanese girls who don’t look like the ZASSHI models – but they usually say that their boyfriend/husband complains about it and tells them they should wear more makeup/look more girly.

      • to me, the biggest eyeopener to me was when a japanese friend of mine stayed at my place and spend an hour doing her makeup so that she looks as if she doesnt have makeup on… I dont wear makeup every day, cause its a pain in the ass, even though I look like a zombie when I dont, but on the other hand, when I do wear it, I can see my (japanese) boyfriends eyes sparcle a bit. so I always say that I have to wear makeup occasionally to remind him why he”s dating me, lol

        • Hahahaha. Yeah. My husband used to be like “You should be like [insert celebrity], she doesn’t wear makeup!”
          And then I showed him an online 55 min makeup tutorial to how to achieve that perfect “natural” look. He was completely shocked by the before and after – like he thought tons of female celebrities just DIDN’T wear makeup in Japan.

  2. I hit my heel craze back in my junior year of high school. I used to LOVE them and had no trouble wearing a pair nearly everyday. After I stopped, though, I never got back into wearing them and, I guess, my feet got used to wearing flats, since now I feel so uncomfortable when I’m too tall – and I have more trouble wearing heels for long periods of time now. I still love heels – a lot of them have such nice designs, and they definitely make you feel like you’re legs are long :)

    I actually looked up Japanese fashion and am a huge fan! But I also feel super self-conscious since I don’t feel like I’m up to par with the Japanese body type nor their super fashion sense. I like to think of myself as relatively fashionable, and I love shopping and coordinating clothing, but I don’t dress up everyday. Even when I do, I feel like the standards in Japan are like a new level of chic compared to back here in the US >.<

    • I know! I do really love Japanese fashion – and I think it looks GREAT on some people… but in my experience, when non-Asian (especially non-Japanese) girls try to wear Japanese street-style chic, it comes off looking awkward.
      I have no idea why.
      I know a couple fashion bloggers who are white and deeply follow Japanese trends. Even though they look cool in a lot of their stuff – they also look a bit over-the-top/awkward in most of their outfits.

      People in the US used to think I dressed up too much. By US standards, maybe, but NOT by Japanese standards. Hahaha.

  3. I love heels! Girls look great in them! But it could be worse, you know.
    You could be in a Jpop or Kpop group and have to sing and dance in high heels!!
    Look at what Perfume and Girls Generation have to wear on their feet onstage! Scary!

  4. I love high heels, and I don’t even notice that my feet hurt because I’m very use to wearing them.

  5. As a wester girl, I am 1.68 and if I put (high) heels in Japan I am sure everyone will stare at me because I am tall. No one will talk to me because, generally (not always) Japanese man are not so tall. So I don’t wear high heels in Tokyo for 3 reason:
    1) after 30mt my feet really HURT and starts bleeding (ooOOOOHH I HATE IT!!! Only the thought, I HATE IT!!! It’s so unconfortable!)
    2) Me too, I prefer confort over fashion.
    3) sometimes heels are bad for your back. I still wear heels….just not always, not to high.

    • Hahaha. True that. High heels seem to have all sort of problems!
      I’m glad a lot of people choose comfort over fashion.

  6. Anonymous // 3 November, 2013 at 4:09 pm //

    Isn’t it obvious, it gives them height, meaning it gives them increased status. Japanese women in general are short, so wearing the highest heels possible makes them more attractive to the tall men of Japan – and more likely, foreigners. The heels allow them to weed out men “unworthy” of them re: height – so any guy shorter than their artificial height, they don’t want, even if they are taller than them without the heels!

  7. Joseph Spenner // 23 September, 2013 at 10:52 am //

    Well, I understand it. I think women look great in heels, and often buy them for my girlfriend as well.
    I am always willing to give foot massages at any time. It’s my part of the deal, and the least I can do.

    (I love shopping, don’t really care about sports, and always ask for directions. I know, I’m a disgrace to guys. Sorry guys.. )

    • My fiance is the same way. He love giving foot massages and going shoe shopping with me. He also thinks I look great in heels. It’s a bit odd, but I love it.

      Your girlfriends are lucky. It’s always fun to date a guy who “cares” about the little things.

  8. gorgeous high heels………
    visit our site for getting high heels in another stylish trendy footwear or clothes.

  9. I can definitely relate to this! :D I’ve always considered myself a fashionable girl, but when I first traveled to Japan, I felt so under-dressed! Even when I was wearing heels and a nice dress, they were no wear near as high as other girls’ heels and my dresses were no were near as stylish as the ones Japanese girls wear. I wonder how early some of the girls must get up in the morning to do their hair, makeup and pick out the right outfits. :O

    • gracebuchele // 7 August, 2013 at 1:22 pm //

      I know, right? I still like to dress nicely, but it makes me feel a bit inadequate in Tokyo.

      I don’t have that problem in the rest of Japan, though. I guess we just need to spend more time outside of the capitol.
      I had a foreign friend who used to spend between an hour and an hour and a half on her hair and make-up every day. It was a ritual (she came late to class pretty often).

  10. Im a boy. btw I really hate girls who often or all day wear high heels. just looking slutty. not more

  11. Eleanor Thomas // 19 July, 2013 at 2:14 am //

    Same here. When I was in Shinjuku in March, the first three things that I don’t get are:
    1. High heels
    2. Thick make-up
    3. Crazy girly-princessy get-up

    I salute them for being able to walk, stand, run etc on heels the whole day. Then it made me wonder, do they know it’s not good for their feet, spine and posture?? Some may, some may not. Some will probably go with the “no pain no gain” theory, but I choose comfort above all else!

    • I know, right?

      I had to wonder if they knew wearing heels causes back problems, knee problems, etc. It was pretty shocking, to say the least.

      And I’ve been here for 13 months now and I STILL don’t understand the Crazy girly-princessy get-up either. I really don’t. But I guess some men (and women) must be into that.

  12. I’m surprised to see these types of heels…i love to wear high heels..!!!

  13. I remember when you got your first pair of crazy high heels in Ghana from some market. You wore them to prom without much experience. I was impressed you didn’t come home in a cast.

  14. Great article and beautiful pics. I would love to visit Tokyo one day and will probably wear heels when I do so :) Yes, there are comfortable heels to wear and yes, it’s a good idea to pace yourself, stop for coffee and smell the roses along the way. It’s also a good idea to switch shoe types and heels on a daily basis.

    • I think so too. I have a couple pairs of my “favorite heels” that I wear on a weekly basis. They are both sexy and comfortable.

      I always dislike the first couple weeks – breaking in a new pair of heels.
      Have fun in Tokyo!

  15. Yess, i thought that too at my first time at Tokyo. My friend and I really wondered how they can survive wearing high heels anytime and anywhere, the long subway tracks are their main transportation. we even found them using high heels at Arashiyama, through an inclined track.

  16. Hmm I can see the allure of high heels, as you said, it makes you feel so much better about yourself. For me, it makes me feel feminine and attractive. Wearing heels doesn’t need to hurt, and you can always find sweet pairs that’ll cause you no pain if you search hard enough.

    But at the same time, I think an important question to be asked is the following: the girls/women who wear non-work heels in Tokyo (like the ones on the first photo) usually walk around the city shopping, at all times of the day (including 9-5). Therefore, they must probably have no jobs. But often they are too young to be married, and if they are college students, how do they have enough time and money to waste on shopping and dressing up? In short, WHAT DO THOSE GIRLS DOOO? This will always remain a mystery to me. Let me know if you ever figure it out.

    • I’m not even joking, I wear heels to class 2-3 times a week. I just hate wearing them “out” because it makes the day less fun (even though my legs look fantastic).

      I do really wonder about the women who wonder around Tokyo shopping all day. Shopping is expensive (especially in Tokyo), if they are walking around that means they don’t have a typical 9-5 job, and they are far too young to be a luck venture capitalist.

      I kind of just assume they are freshly married (with no kids) or their husbands money or still in college/fresh out of college on their parents money. I HAVE NO IDEA.
      (I’m actually going to vote on the college one, because I don’t even have classes on Monday or Wednesday. A lot of my friends only have classes 2-3 times a week in “blocks” and then have the rest of the week off)
      Also, is that much shopping really necessary? Japanese apartment’s aren’t large – at some point you’ve got to run out of places to put the clothes (which is my problem right now).

  17. The secret is of course to pace oneself by periodically stopping for coffee and drinks–as you eventually learned. Anyways, great heels!

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