If you have been to Japan, you know that its people have deeply entrenched traditions about removing their shoes before entering homes and other indoor places. Why is the Japanese custom of removing shoes such a huge part of Japanese culture and society?
The Japanese custom of removing shoes before entering a house stems from the Heian period between the years 794 and 1185. While a house could quickly become dirty if people entered wearing mud-covered straw sandals (zoori) or clogs (geta), the more likely reason that shoes were left outside was the custom of sitting, eating, and sleeping directly on the floor or straw mats.
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Japanese custom of removing shoes at the household entrance
The entryway, or “genkan,” of a house in Japan is a small sunken room where shoes are removed. Guest will be reminded of this custom when they see a line of shoes on the floor or a “geta-bako” or shoe cupboard.
According to custom, if a guest places their shoes on the floor, they should face outwards towards the door. Nearby, as one steps up into the house, there is likely to be a slipper rack, holding pairs of slippers to be worn while in the house.
If the flooring of a room in a house is covered by a tatami, which is a woven straw mat, a guest should remove their slippers before entering. Only bare or stocking feet are allowed on these types of floors.
A host may also provide special slippers for use in the bathroom. Since these slippers stay inside the bathroom, a guest needs to switch from indoor slippers to bathroom slippers before entering. Conversely, they need to switch out of the bathroom slippers before reentering the rest of the house.
The Japanese custom of removing shoes extends well beyond the home. Japanese students are required to remove their shoes from primary to high school; however, they are relieved of this responsibility once they enter college. By taking off one’s shoes at school, students signify that no matter their family status, everyone is equal once they enter school.
When students go to school, they are required to wear standard uniform outdoor shoes. Once they arrive at school, these shoes are removed and placed in a geta-bako. Students regard a geta-bako as a special place where love letters or small notes can be hidden in a classmate’s shoes. Students switch to standard uniform indoor shoes while in school.
Students also need to bring a pair of sneakers to be worn exclusively during physical education class. It is not acceptable to wear indoor shoes in a gym. Students are often assigned sneakers by color, which indicates their grade.
Removing shoes in Japan is not limited to homes and schools. Other places where removing shoes may be required include shrines, temples, traditional inns, and hot spring resorts.
Restaurants may also have a no-shoes policy. In such cases, the restaurant may provide slippers and a cubby hole or locker for a patron’s shoes. If a patron is unsure of the policy upon entering a restaurant, a hostess will usually direct them to a bench and assist them with removing their shoes.
Most public places requiring that shoes be removed will also provide a dedicated area, and in some cases a locker, for removing and storing shoes. While most commercial stores, shopping malls, and office buildings do not have a no-shoe policy, there are always exceptions, so when in doubt, scan the feet around you!
Translated by Yi Ming