Japanese rickshaw-puller Yuka Akimoto sprints through the streets of Tokyo while two French tourists watch from the rear of her black two-wheeled cart under a sweltering sun.
When the 45-minute tour is finished, the 21-year-old makes a deep bow in front of her customers and extends her blistering palm, which is wrapped with a clean cloth, to assist the pair in boarding. She flushes, and sweat runs down her face.
Akimoto is one of a selected group of women who have made the decision to pull rickshaws in Tokyo. She was drawn to the traditionally male-dominated industry by social media, which has given some of these women huge local and international followings.
“I don’t deny it was extremely hard at the beginning,” she said, as the rickshaw can weigh up to 250 kg (551 lb). “I’m not athletic and the cart felt so heavy.”
She now claims that she enjoys her profession and intends to continue doing so for as long as she is able. She wears a cord around her neck with a tag that reads, "I don't want to give up."
After having her ambitions to begin work at Tokyo Disneyland derailed by the epidemic two years prior, Akimoto joined Tokyo Rickshaw. About a third of the company's 90 pullers are now women, according to the company, which primarily serves the tourist district of Asakusa, and they are actively recruiting additional women.
“The first girl who joined was cool,” said Tokyo Rickshaw President Ryuta Nishio. “Since we posted videos of her on social media, many girls have followed suit and joined us.”
“Going forward I want to create a place where women feel comfortable to work and play an active role,” he added.
Regardless of the weather, Akimoto and her fellow rickshaw pullers walk or sprint an average of 20 kilometres (12 miles) per day while donning traditional tabi split-toed socks.
Rickshaw drivers must be physically fit, have a thorough knowledge of Tokyo, and know how to interact with tourists, who typically hire them for sightseeing.
According to Tokyo Rickshaw, the most well-liked drivers earn more than 1 million yen a month, which is three times the national average. Less than 10% of applicants receive job offers.
The pullers actively market themselves on social media, gaining loyal clients who make personal requests.
Additionally, Yumeka Sakurai, a college student, was inspired to join Tokyo Rickshaw by those social media posts.
“I’ve watched many videos of women training hard and becoming rickshaw drivers themselves. They gave me confidence that I could do it too if I tried hard,” the 20-year-old said.
Sakurai claims that after overcoming resistance from her friends and families during her four months of training, she is now proud to carry passengers on her rickshaw.
Shiori Yano, a 29-year-old veteran puller with nine years of experience, balances the demands of her family life with those of her job.
After giving birth, the former fitness teacher took a four-year hiatus. She now spends eight hours each day driving the rickshaw while hurrying to pick up her daughter from nursery before returning home to prepare supper and take care of other household duties.
“This job looked flashy from the outside but I’ve had some hard times, including when I was rejected in favour of a male driver,” Yano said. Still, she says she will continue to work because she enjoys it.
Nishio, a driver for Tokyo Rickshaw, said she occasionally receives comments that women shouldn't perform such physically taxing work. She said that male customers may occasionally engage in sexual harassment of female pullers or question their expertise.
“We treat both male and female pullers completely equally,” Nishio said. “The women say they want to be treated the same as the men, and in fact, many of them are way tougher.”
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