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.

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

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

  1. 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.

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  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

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  8. 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).

  9. 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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