Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Please remove your shoes: Japanese shoe etiquette

An English student asked me a very good question: When do Americans remove their shoes?

Here in Japan there is an area within the entryway of every home for the sole purpose (excuse the pun) of removing and storing one's shoes.

This is also the case in schools where students remove their street shoes, and put on their indoor shoes, when they enter school each day.

There are also some restaurants here where shoes are removed before entering the dining area. This is standard in places where you dine sitting on the raised floors covered in tatami mats and seat cushions.

If there is one aspect of traditional Japanese culture which I think is practical, sensible and should be widely adopted by the the whole world in general, it is this: the removing of one's shoes upon entering a house, (or perhaps even a school, or temple) or other dwelling place, or designated area, for the purpose of cleanliness. At the very least this should be standard in every home. It is hygienic and serves a very good practical purpose for families with little ones who play on the floor.

It feels dirty, almost sinful, to drag the dust and grime of my footwear into someones house, as was the case when I last visited the U.S.A., especially in a house with carpeting! The very idea of people wearing the same shoes they wear outside in the street into a house, into a carpeted house in particular, thoroughly creeps me out! The image of multitudes of accumulated bacteria seeping into the matted plush weave amongst the deposited dirt and grime stands out in my mind, and in the mind of every Japanese person, as an uncomfortable pollution of one's home environment. This may derive from the traditional Japanese tradition of sitting and sleeping upon the floor rather than always relying on raised seats or beds.

Dining on the raised floor covered in tatami mats.

Sleeping on the tatami mat floor.

Even if you live in a relatively "clean" environment there are sure to be all kinds of germs on your shoes. If you happen to live in a densely populated urban area then you really have to take into account that sidewalks have been spit, vomited and pissed upon... at the very least.

In Japan, when work or repairmen visit your home (please don't think me misogynistic, dear reader, when I specify the male gender, but the chances of a Japanese repairwoman visiting your home are comparable to the chances of me finding hummus in my local supermarket here, or to a Japanese businessman telling a funny joke), they always remove their shoes and open a fresh pair of house socks to wear while working in your home.

Usually in Japan there is a step up from the shoe removing area into the dwelling place. Slippers are also often provided (though I have yet to find any pair to accommodate my size 12 feet here in Japan. so these slippers act, more often than not, as toe covers... barely).

Moreover, within almost every Japanese home, the restroom, or water closet (the tiny room that houses the toilet -- being separate from the bathroom, or "o-furo" where one showers and bathes) usually comes equipped with it's own pair of "toilet slippers" to be used exclusively when one is taking care of their toilet business.

One should switch slippers when stepping from the home proper and into the restroom (the house slippers never enter the restroom, toilet slippers never leave the restroom), and again repeat the process in reverse when they exit the restroom. This slipper -dance -game can take some practice to master as the slippers are, again, often more like toe-covers (barely) for those of us with larger than average feet.

Furthermore, if you forget to change slippers upon exiting the restroom (as many foreigners new to Japan will often do by accident) you will likely be met with embarrassed  looks, whispers and some kind of explanation from your offended host about this sensitive cultural faux pas as they hurry you back to retrieve your designated house slippers.

The idea behind all this shoe game is cleanliness.

By the way, if you ever have to use an old fashioned Asian squat toilet… you have my deepest sympathy. But that's a story for another time…

So, when do you remove your shoes?

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