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Osaka department store's employee 'period badge' criticized as sexual harassment

The newly opened "michi kake" shopping section is seen at Daimaru's Umeda store in Osaka's Kita Ward on Nov. 26, 2019, with a panel showing "Seiri-chan" (Ms. Period), a cartoon character for women to indicate when they are menstruating. (Mainichi/Koichi Ogino)

A major department store in Osaka recently launched an initiative at a newly opened section for women, where female employees wore a "period badge" when menstruating. While it was intended only for people working at the store to notify each other, the program has come in for criticism online as an example of "sexual harassment," and the store has since been forced to suspend use of the badges.

Social media influencers are seen discussing feminine hygiene product packaging as part of a Unicharm Corp. project, in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on June 6, 2019. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

Department store chain Daimaru's Umeda store, in Osaka's Kita Ward, opened a newly renovated part of its fifth-floor women's apparel section and a new 893-square-meter retail space called "michi kake," where a variety of beauty and period products are sold, on Nov. 22.

The store is promoting the new unit as a space where "modern women who are faced with unprecedented issues -- such as mental and physical problems, hardships among family members, concerns about relationships and social issues -- can ease their troubles as much as possible."

Around 500 members of staff working on the fifth floor were handed promotional badges featuring a manga character printed on the back of them created by cartoonist Ken Koyama, called "Seri-chan," or Ms. Period. As part of a trial starting in mid-October, those who wished to let others know when they were on their period could wear the badge reversed, so that the Seiri-chan side would be visible.

Yoko Higuchi, Daimaru Umeda store's public relations representative, says the program was suggested by some younger staff members because it would help them to be more considerate of their colleagues if they knew about their physical condition. The store let the workers participate voluntarily, as not everyone wanted other people to know they were menstruating.

"Seiri-chan" (Ms. Period) goods are seen on sale at the newly opened "michi kake" shopping section at Daimaru's Umeda store on Nov. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Koichi Ogino)

But when the media reported on the program in late November, many people did not take to it favorably. A Twitter user commented, "I'm worried about it getting silently enforced because it's in the workplace," while another tweeted, "It would be better if they introduced chairs staff can sit on when they're not helping shoppers, or a working environment where they can take menstrual leave rather than wearing period badges." One Twitter user also said, "We want understanding, not a badge."

Some people mistook the program to be aimed at customers, saying that the information has "absolutely nothing to do with shopping" and expressing concerns that some customers might sexually harass staff because of the badges. But Higuchi emphasized that it was "an in-house program aimed at facilitating communication among employees."

She said, "We had no intention of letting customers know (about staff's menstrual cycles) but the point of the initiative was miscommunicated in the press when they came to preview the new floor." She also pointed out that the store did not put out any official press releases on the badges or provide explanations about the program to outside parties, and that before it was picked up by the media, shoppers had rarely given opinions on it.

Meanwhile, a movement to change the long-held view that women's periods are a source of embarrassment to be hidden has recently been gaining momentum. The market known as "femtech" (female technology), which focuses on services and products to help women on their fertility and menstrual cycles, has seen rapid growth.

Writer Minori Kitahara is seen in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on May 30, 2019. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

Major period product manufacturer Unicharm Corp. has joined with social media influencers to develop fashionable items for women's monthly cycles. The number of boutiques carrying the new period products, such as menstrual cups and absorbent underwear, is increasing.

Last year, Daimaru's Umeda store opened a women-focused temporary store by TENGA, a maker of adult goods. In addition to period products, some stores at the newly opened "michi kake" also carry sex-related items for women.

Writer Minoru Kitahara, who runs a company handling women's sexual health care products, opened a shop at "michi kake." She explained that department stores traditionally did not sell period products or sex-related items, but that there have been shops opening in recent years that do carry them. She told the Mainichi Shimbun that, through interactions with customers, she learned how women in different age groups are troubled by their periods and their sexuality. She also praised Daimaru's "michi kake" section, saying that it "caters to women's needs."

At the same time, Kitahara aired her skepticism about the period badges, saying, "I wonder if the act of wearing the badge itself would truly lead to people openly discussing women's sexuality or their periods. I felt that it was off, like a forceful exposure (of women's health) taking advantage of the growing market for women." She revealed that while the badges were distributed to staff at her shop, they felt uncomfortable and chose not to wear them.

"The most important thing for women to take control of their own sexuality, which has been valued unilaterally as porn and talked about in a violent way, is not for them to publicly display it but to protect their dignity," Kitahara stated. She pointed out that it is essential for society as a whole to learn about women's periods and sexuality, and that Daimaru's Umeda store lacked that awareness.

(Japanese original by Aya Shiota and Satoko Nakagawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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