I remember when I first emailed my predecessor in the summer of 2012 and asked about proper work attire at the school where I was about to start working. Her explanation was mostly what I expected — guys wear cool biz in the summer, and a shirt/tie at the very least in winter. But what threw me were her remarks about shoes. She said that most teachers wear nice shoes to work, then take them off in the genkan and hop into sneakers, slippers, and sometimes even sandals. Back then that sounded like crazy talk. Why wear a suit and then slip into some Reeboks? Of course now this seems like the most usual thing in the world. Add that to the list of “Things I Have to be Careful Not to do When I Return Home.”
Living in Japan, we’re all accustomed to the sometimes strange shoe culture in here. But I thought I’d use this installment of “Cultural Gap” to discuss a little more about the practices and implications of the Japanese view on shoes.
The tradition of taking off shoes originated from the time when Japanese households primarily had tatami floors throughout. As anyone who’s ever spilled something on their tatami knows, those things are a pain in the neck to clean. Combined with the fact that they’re easily damaged, very susceptible to rotting when wet, and a virtual playground for small bugs, it’s not hard to see why folks found it a good idea to strip off those gross, muck-covered, grass-stained shoes before climbing onto the fragile ecosystem that is a tatami mat. (It is, however, difficult to see why something so temperamental would ever be used as a flooring material in the first place. But I suppose you could say the same for carpet…)
Another purpose for removing shoes is an obvious one — people like keeping their floors clean. In asian culture, you get a lot more acquainted with the floor a lot more often than you would, say, growing up in a western culture. Whereas most westerners grew up sitting at dining room tables in chairs or sleeping a comfy foot or two above the floor, folks in Japan grew up sitting around the kotatsu and sleeping on their futon, rolled right out onto the tatami. As such, it’s much more important to keep those floors spotless! Indeed, the tradition is not limited to Japan — many Asian countries like Korea and China observed similar etiquette.
So from this history, we arrive at the conclusion that shoes are dirty little monsters strapped to your feet, ready to soil anything they can get their treads on. Which, logically, means there’s more etiquette attached to those foot coverings than most westerners are used to observing.
For example, you may have noticed that if a Japanese person needs to step on a chair or stool, (to reach a high shelf or help a cat out of a tree,) they’ll remove their shoes before stepping up onto the chair/stool. This comes from the idea that shoes are dirty, and don’t belong where something so dignified as a butt belongs. Okay, okay, to be fair, what if someone’s wearing really nice pants and you just trampled all over their chair? Consequently, the act of kicking back and putting your feet up on a chair, while slightly impolite in the States (depending on the circumstances) is totally off-limits here.
And how about floors that shoes ARE allowed onto? What results is a sort-of game of “The Ground is Lava,” that old elementary school favorite. How many times have you visited a restaurant and put your bag down on the ground by your feet, only to have a server emerge from the shadows and offer you a basket to place it in? This happens all the time to my wife and I. Last year, my school’s bonenkai was held in one of those fancy event spaces in a hotel downtown. A few minutes into the revelry, I realized that every single woman in the room had placed her purse behind her on her seat, between her lower back and the back of the chair, in order to avoid placing her bag on the ground. I asked a female coworker about it afterward, and she explained that she would never place her purse on the ground, because it’s so dirty. I have since noticed that when she comes into the office, she hangs it on the arm of her swivel chair.
While westerners would probably avoid putting our belongings onto the ground in a fast food restaurant or a movie theater with sticky floors, I don’t believe I’d think twice about setting my stuff onto the carpeted floor of a ballroom in a fancy hotel.
This also gives rise to the custom of people squatting so much in Japan. I was really surprised by that when I first came here. In America, squatting is sort-of uncool over the age of six or seven. But here, I’ll see businessmen in suits squatting in Kanazawa station, or women chatting on their cellphones squatting on the stairs. Because the ground is dirty, they don’t want to sit on it (it doesn’t help that benches are virtually non-existant in public spaces, but that’s a subject for another time).
The one time I have noticed a loophole is with students. Ahh, yes. The bottom of Japanese society’s totem pole, students always seem to get the short end of the stick. Whenever my school goes on a field trip to a museum or to visit the zoo, or anytime they have a fire drill and the students have to assemble on the school grounds, the teachers don’t hesitate for a second about telling the students to have a seat in the dirt, grass, or linoleum. Poor souls.
So, how about you? Do you have a story about shoe etiquette in Japan? Want to add something I missed? Feel free to comment below! And stay tuned for the next edition of “Cultural Gap.”
Daniel is a third-year JET living in Kanazawa. He teaches at a junior high school and loves coffee, bike rides, and hanging out with his wife.