I am not a fan of shoes so when the idea of not wearing shoes inside homes, businesses and restaurants was introduced to me in Japan, I was not at all disappointed! I am not a fan of socks either, but I’ve adapted to the polite practice of wearing socks while out so as not to walk around barefoot in a restaurant or someone elses’ house. But why do people require you to remove your shoes upon entering a building in Japan? I’m still not quite sure. I’ve researched a couple of answers and here’s what I’ve found.
I started off by asking some of my older students in one of my class about the reason for removing shoes. They told me that in old Japan they believed that upon entering a home you were removing your shoes so as not to bring the ‘outside’ world into your home. I was lead to believe that this had something to do with spiritual beliefs, but we had exhausted their English abilities at this point so I didn’t get my additional questions answered. On to the Internet for answers!
Sorry for the poor picture quality! A photo of the room we stayed in while in Koyasan.
In Japan you live on the floor, unless you’ve taken up Western style furniture. My apartment in Nishi Akashi doesn’t have a bed, but instead a futon on the floor, there isn’t a table and instead I use a tray for my lap, and the TV stand is very low to the ground. When I stayed in a temple in Koyasan, I had a room similar but it had tatami mats on the floors. Upon understanding the way Japanese people live a more floor-based culture, I began to understand why you wouldn’t want to wear your shoes inside. You may kick dirt from outside onto your bed! This site pointed out the fact that since it can be very rainy and muddy in Japan that you would track all of that into your home and possibly get it onto your sleeping and living areas. This site goes on to state that the tatami mats used in more traditional homes, hotels, temples, etc. do not stand up to even slippers and can be easily damaged by them . This same site also points out that many places will have separate slippers for bathrooms and you are to use the slippers only while using the facilities and not anywhere else.
Upon further investigation into why people remove their shoes in Japan, this site stated that it may be associated with ‘relaxation.’ When people return home from the outside world they are finally allowed to relax and they do so by removing their shoes.
My mother’s and my shoes in a getabako in Kyoto.
So what do you do with your shoes once you’ve removed them and where is the right place to remove your shoes? Upon entering homes and many businesses there is a small area called a genken where you remove your shoes. It will either be a step down from the main floor or it will be level to the entrance and then you step up to enter the main floor of the home. Either in the same area or maybe nearby, there will often be a getabako, a shoe closet/cabinet, where you store your shoes. In restaurants or other public places there may be shoe lockers for you to lock your shoes. This is the place where you should remove and store your shoes. Many people consider the genken as part of the outdoors and I’ve seen people refuse to step on this area without shoes on – but this seems to be a personal preference and may also be associated with age as I’ve also seen some of my 20-something Japanese friends walk on it without any problems at all.
What do you wear after you’ve removed your shoes? You have 3 options: slippers, socks, nothing. These are the only acceptable ways to walk indoors. When I’ve had people come visit me in Japan, one of the first things I tell them is to be prepared to remove your shoes and if you are uncomfortable with that then you cannot enter the building. During the summer, my mother and cousin who visited (each separately brought a pair of socks with them everywhere. At first I was a little unsure of removing my shoes in public places, especially restaurants, but the longer I’ve been here the more used to the idea I’ve gotten – and I even prefer it. I never liked shoes anyway!
*Don’t wear shoes in: temples, homes, businesses that have a genken, dressing rooms in clothing stores, some restaurants. All other places its always polite to ask and pay attention to what the other people are doing.