In one of our many domestic moves we lived in the US Pacific Northwest. There are two unique characteristics of the Pacific Northwest relative to the rest of the US. One is the high percentage of Asians and second the high amount of precipitation. For those two reasons when looking at houses, all potential buyers are asked to remove shoes at the front door or cover with booties. This process is where I became familiar with the Asian practice of removing shoes upon entry in to a dwelling.
In the Pacific Northwest and now in other areas of the country, some Americans of non- Asian descent ask visitors to remove shoes upon entry. I’m baffled by this practice as I don’t see anything worth preserving in most instances. In the cases where there is something of real value, no one has asked me to part with my Jimmys. Out of spite, this borrowed practice adopted by non- Asians I only follow in households of those I don’t know well. My shoes give me leg length and much needed height which I need to complete my often imitated look and I don’t intend on sacrificing it for cheap carpets. However, in Japan, I gladly comply.
I have become accustomed to watching others to see how to act in a situation. I have also learned to look for subtleties in reactions to my actions as a gauge for mistakes made on my part. Although the Japanese are masters at covering their own reactions, there is an initial response to a faux pas which will quickly be covered with a smile. Watch carefully and one knows one has stepped in it.
The offspring and I were ready to leave- shoes on- when the cleaning ladies arrived. We were standing in the entryway. I needed to show the ladies a problem with the dryer which was located in the kitchen. I really did not want to take my shoes off just to walk the 10 feet to the kitchen so I stepped off the entryway linoleum and on the the carpet. One of the ladies opened her mouth in a large “O” and the other shook her head slightly. They both looked quickly to see if I noticed. I was watching. I was on the carpet. They smiled and followed- without their shoes. It was my apartment, I wasn’t too worried.
A couple of weeks later, I went on a grocery store taste testing. At the beginning of the session, I entered the guide’s house, stepped on to her entryway floor, on to the little carpeted area, took off my shoes and dropped them on the entry way floor, and continued inside. I enjoyed my session and got ready to leave. I picked up my shoes.
“Uhemm…..ladies. Some of you may not know this. If you step on the carpet area with your shoes, it is the equivalent of spitting on someone’s floor”
” In fact, you are supposed to slip off your shoes as soon as you come in the door. Do not let your shoes touch any carpeted area.”
Well, maybe the whole shoe didn’t touch- maybe just the tips.
“Then turn the toe portion of the shoe toward the door so that you can slip right in to them on your way out”
I definitely did not do that, I just dropped them. Not aligned in any direction. Maybe soles up.
“Absolutely NEVER soles up.”
“If you go somewhere with your husband, do the same for his shoes- you get extra credit.”
Spouse is on his own.
At this point, I calculate how many times I’ve spat on the floors of Japan. The guide books never tell you this helpful information. Who cares how to use chop sticks if you spit on people’s floors?
The how and why- The practice probably began due to the destruction on the matts caused by debris and wear from street shoes. In most households, slippers are given to guests. There are separate slippers for the bathrooms.In traditional Japanese housing, the floor covering is the tatami matt. These look like a matt woven out of some sort of grass material.
The tatami matt size forms the unit measure used in Japan. The standard size for a tatami matt is 33.5″ x 70.5″. The unit of measure is called a “jo”. When looking at an apartment, the room size will be expressed by jo.
All apartments have a shoe closet right next to the front door. One of the things that has made it to my “Japan Top Ten List” is the Giant Shoe Closet.
Since we’re on the subject of feet- don’t show the soles of your feet. I’ve noticed on the subway no one crosses their legs. Does crossing one’s legs count as exposing the sole of the foot? I’m not sure, however, the Japanese sit with both feet rooted to the floor. I don’t show the soles of my feet either- because mine are dirty.