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.
I need this closet in my new house…my feet are worse! I still didn’t get my first summer pedi yet!
Isn’t it the best- a must have in future houses!
I can’t believe you took a photo of your feet. you are so weird. Mr. Dr. has the same ideas about soles up on shoes, along with a lot of other strange old country superstitions that I can only guess at by reading body language cues like you do on the Japanese.
Your blog really is an eye opener. ^_^ I had some idea of taking off shoes, different slippers/shoes for different parts of the house, but I didn’t realise the etiquette was quite that precise. But then I am getting the impression that a lot of things in Japan are indeed that precise! Where you put your shoes at the sumo for example (those little cushioned areas look very cool!) It occurs to me that your previous post was regarding shoe shopping – going with a theme? 😉
I get going on a theme and then feel like I need to change directions in case people aren’t as entertained as I am!
How do they deal with dirty pet paws? Or don’t they have a lot of pets in Tokyo?
Animal feet are different- and there are lots of tiny dogs here. Usually their paws are washed before they enter a building. Oh- and all dogs wear clothes.
I am enjoying your blog very much, there is so much to learn about Japanese customs. Some I find strange but the where shoes are concerned I would fit right in with the Japanese. Yes and I have a little shoe cupboard by the front door too and I freak when people wear there shoes on my carpet. My mum freaks if anyone keeps shoes soles facing up and I do have separate slippers to wear indoors and for the bathroom and kitchen too. 🙂 There are places in Canada and Europe too where people would prefer outside shoes to be right there -outside
I have an in law who freaks when someone points or shows the soles of their feet in his direction. Obviously I’m now VERY careful with shoes and feet!!!! Thanks for reading and posting your most interesting comment!
Hi! A lot of travel guides mention this subject, at least the lonely planet one’s, my japanese teacher explained to us that is because hygiene and tradition, after he explained it seems quite logical, you go all day walking and getting dirt and bacteria… why the hell would you want to bring that inside your home? when he told us a couple of stories I felt a little bit like a caveman 😛
Hygiene it’s very important for them and in some traditional houses you may find two baths, one for doing your needs and other for bathing… and again when you ponder about it’s very logical one is for becoming clean and the other is for well…other stuff…
The align the shoe habit is for respect, it’s easier for the rest to take of their shoes before entering if it isn’t a mess.
Now it all makes sense! After living here I feel grossed out when people sneeze around me without turning the other way and covering their nose whereas before I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Thanks for stopping by!