“It gives a cold impression”: Why Japanese companies ban female staff from wearing glasses

Putting on her ‘best’ face.
Putting on her ‘best’ face.
Image: Reuters/issei Kato
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From mandatory high heels to a ban on glasses, Japanese women have been busy pushing back against restrictive and anachronistic dress codes in the workplace in 2019.

The hashtag “glasses are forbidden” (#メガネ禁止) has been trending on social media in Japan this week following the airing of a program on the Nippon TV network exploring how companies in different sectors do not allow female employees to wear glasses on the job. The program followed a report published late last month by Business Insider Japan (link in Japanese) on the same issue.

The program listed a number of reasons that employers gave for not wanting women to wear glasses while at work. Domestic airlines said it was for safety reasons, companies in the beauty industry said it was difficult to see the employee’s make-up properly behind glasses, while major retail chains said female shop assistants give off a “cold impression” if they wear glasses. Traditional Japanese restaurants said that glasses simply do not go well with traditional Japanese dress.

Some likened the ban (link in Japanese) on glasses for women in the workplace to similarly strict rules that exist across Japanese schools—such as forcing students with lighter hair shades to dye their hair black—widely referred to as “black school rules,” with the word “black” in Japan often used to describe a person or organization that is overly harsh or unscrupulous. As in the workplace, many schools target the way females should act and dress, for example setting out strict guidelines on hair length, underwear color, and skirt length. Some forbid female students from wearing stockings under their skirts in the winter.

Earlier this year, Japanese women began voicing their discontent with arcane workplace restrictions on their looks through the #KuToo movement, which drew attention to the requirement that many companies still have that women wear high heels to work. The term #KuToo is a triple pun, playing on the Japanese words kutsu (shoes), kutsuu (pain), and the #MeToo movement. The explosion of interest in discriminatory treatment against women at the workplace also comes amid a growing rejection of sexist norms in Japanese society as the #MeToo movement started gaining ground since 2018.

The chorus of discontent against the glasses ban echoes a similar phenomenon in South Korea last year, when a female news anchor broke ranks and decided to wear glasses instead of putting on contact lenses for her early morning show. The sight of a woman wearing glasses reading the news not only shocked viewers, but also prompted a local airline to review its own policies and allow female cabin crew to wear glasses.

Some Japanese women have been posting photos of their glasses on Twitter in response to the findings of the news reports. One user who did so after picking up a new pair of glasses wrote, “Isn’t it so troublesome when you can see all the middle-aged men in the world?”