I am sure that most people are aware of the Japanese custom of taking off shoes when entering a house. But what many foreign workers in Japan don’t know is that there are MANY more situations!
When you live and work in Japan, you will most likely be faced with a countless number of situations every day. Taking shoes off at your (or someones) house is just the beginning. At your workplace, at school, in a hospital, at your favorite clothing store… The list of ‘Shoes Off’ situations in Japan goes on and on.
But, taking your shoes off sounds so simple right?
Yes, but even a veteran living in Japan for years can easily still mess up! There are situations that just catch all foreigners off guard!
So, in this post, I will go over the key tips to ‘Master’ the art of taking off your shoes in the right situations in Japan. Here is a quick overview of the reason why you need to take your shoes off in Japan. And some friendly tips to help you avoid any sticky or awkward situations!
The Importance of Taking your Shoes off in Japan
So why are the Japanese people so pedantic about taking off their shoes?
The main and most obvious reason is centered around cleanliness.
The climate in Japan is very humid. Back when roads weren’t paved or layered with stones, the Japanese naturally removed their shoes to stop bringing in mud and dirt from the outside. This was especially because houses were made with `tatami` flooring. Which is extremely hard to clean dirt from.
In addition to the above, for the Japanese, the floor is not just for walking on. They are accustomed to going about their daily activities all from the floor such as eating and sleeping.
For example, you will find that many Japanese still prefer to eat dinner on a low table while sitting on a cushion on the floor. Not to mention, laying and sleeping on a ‘futon’ on the floor e.t.c are still a very big norm. This can be a result of Japanese houses being more compact than the west.
When do you Have to Take your Shoes off?
So when should you be ready to take your shoes off?
Here are some general signs for you to look out for.
1. When you Enter Someone’s House (genkan)
This is obvious as realistically you don’t want to be bringing in dirt from outside into someone’s house. But the point that needs to be made is the importance of the ‘genkan‘ (entrance). For a house, apartment, school, in nearly any building there is a ‘genkan’.
This ‘genkan’ is the clear borderline between the inside and the outside. It is usually a 2-3 centimeter step up from the floor, and sometimes be of a different color/texture. This genkan is considered as ‘outside’ and is the place you have to take your shoes off.
2. Shoe Box, Cubbyhole or a Set of Slippers
In addition to the ‘genkan’ explained above, another good sign to look out for is a shoe box, cubbyhole or slippers laid out. Naturally, this is a sign that you have to take your shoes off here.
Sometimes slippers may not be laid out in the open so it makes it hard to judge if you have to take your shoes off at that particular place. In this case, have a peek inside a shoe box or look around for a slipper box (A box stuffed with guest slippers)
3. Tatami flooring/rooms
Just as I stated above in the explanation of Japanese shoe culture, Tatami and shoes (slippers too) don’t go well together. Sometimes you will find restaurants and old-fashioned shops that have a tatami area. Every step you make on a tatami mat with shoes or slippers damages the fine bamboo. And replacing tatami isn’t cheap!
Make sure to take your shoes off and slippers off here!
Friendly Advice on the Shoe Culture in Japan
Now you know why and when you have to take your shoes off in Japan.
Lastly, here are some friendly tips to put the icing on the cake and help you become a master of this Japanese custom!
1. Wear ‘Easy to Slip On/Off’ shoes
During the course of the day, you can easily find yourself putting on and taking off your shoes multiple times. Therefore having a few pairs of shoes that you can easily pop on and off is highly recommended. Spending a day going through the trouble of lacing and un-lacing your shoes can be more tiring than it seems!
High-cut sneakers and leather boots are fashionable I know! But on a day that you know you will be going in and outdoors, something comfortable would make your life that much easier.
2. Make Sure You Don’t Have Holes in your Socks.
You never know where or when you might have to take your shoes off in Japan. You might suddenly be invited into a friend’s house (when you were only expecting to go to the door) and so on. When you do take your shoes off you do not want to be wearing socks that look like a mouse has had a nibble at it. It isn’t a cultural faux pas or anything, but more of just an embarrassing moment that you want to avoid.
On the same note, if you have a case of athlete’s foot or naturally have smelly feet, it might be a good idea to buy some spray as the Japanese do tend to have a radar beacon for the smallest things.
Last Piece of Advice to Keep You Thinking
Here’s a real story that shows how the ‘Taking Shoes Off’ culture in Japan can creep up and embarrass you.
One day a young teacher in his 2nd year in Japan went shopping for clothes at a popular store in Osaka. He went in looking for a new set of work clothes for school.
When he found a pair of nice slacks he went to try them on in the changing rooms.
He got an item number card from a shop assistant and walked straight into one of the booths.
As he was about to shut the curtains, he was immediately stopped by the shop assistant. She wasn’t happy at all. He got one of the biggest ‘telling offs’ he had ever had in Japan.
Because he was meant to take off his shoes on the outside of the booth!
He checked if there was a ‘genkan’ step like a house, he also checked if there were slippers or a cubbyhole for shoes. Obviously, the room wasn’t of tatami flooring!
On careful inspection, he noticed that there was a very faint difference in color from the inside and outside of the booth. This was the no-step ‘genkan’ type borderline that designated the inside of the booth to be the clean ‘inside’ area… Therefore he had to take his shoes off OUTSIDE of the booth.
It wasn’t the best start of the day for this friend!