Purity and cleanliness are important values in Japanese culture. For example, in Japan people remove their shoes before entering a house. I believe this practice to be rooted in the focus on purity in the Shinto religion. If you come to think about it, it makes sense from a practical viewpoint as well. You leave all the dirt, both visible and invisible, at the doorstep.
Japanese homes have a special area to make the transition from outside to inside, called a genkan. Located at the front door, it is slightly lower than the rest of the house. Shoes are left in the genkan and usually there are slippers for residents and guests alike. Or else people just wear socks indoors.
But the quest for purity doesn’t stop at the genkan. The Japanese take it even further with special toilet slippers. These are slippers to be worn in the toilet only. They are placed at the toilet entrance and whenever you want to use the toilet, you change from your regular indoor slippers to the special toilet slippers. Again it makes sense when you think about it. Why would you go through all that trouble to keep your floors clean and pure, to then spread all the (invisible) toilet nastiness all over the house by walking around.
A few extra things to note about the use of slippers:
Do not forget to leave your toilet slippers at the toilet door after you are done. Stories of forgetful foreigners walking all over the house in toilet slippers are ubiquitous.
When you remove your shoes at the genkan, make sure you don’t step on the elevated part and take them off there, but actually remove them in lower area of the genkan. It is something I used to do a lot in the beginning, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the genkan.
Taking off your shoes before entering a house applies to traditional Japanese homes, restaurants and hostels. In a Western style hotel, for example, people keep their shoes on, even in their room. In some restaurants, you should also keep your shoes on. So the rules about where to take off your shoes may differ a little according to the situation. But no need to panic. If you just try to keep the shoe issue in mind and pay attention to what other people are doing, you should be fine.
Do not step on tatami wearing slippers. I discovered this rule the hard way, after having been severely scolded for stepping on tatami with slippers when I was visiting a temple. I imagine tatami are delicate and the slippers might damage them. You may only step on tatami barefoot or with socks. Socks are preferred because it is more hygienic.
Finally, if you do mess up the slipper thing and someone gets angry at you, try a sincere and humble apology to defuse the situation. Depending on how angry they are, you might try a bow and sumimasen deshita. If they are positively fuming, whip out your deepest bow, hold it for a while and say mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. Good luck!
Our family never wears our shoes past the doorway, and we are an American family living in Arizona. My mother vaccums the carpets twice a week and is very clean-conscious so wearing shoes past the entryway in our house is just rude (and uncomfortable). If you have your shoes on, not only is it dirty, but it feels like the person visiting is planning to leave at any moment and not feeling welcome in the home.
i grew up in asia, and so i’m used to the etiquette of ‘no shoes’ in the house and also the use of slippers inside a house. but the practice of slipper wearing is different in japan. one that i have to learn to adjust to, whenever i get to visit japan.
How is it different from the one you are used to?
we take off our shoes upon entering a house. but once we are inside, we put on a slip-on/slipper/sandal to wear inside the house. but we take it off once entering the bedroom. inside bedroom we walk bare feet.
In the Netherlands, people don’t usually take off their shoes when entering the house. But living in Japan, I’ve gotten so used to it now that when I see a Western sitcom, I feel really weird seeing people wearing shoes in the living room!
Once you get used to taking them off in the house, it feels dirty to keep them on, doesn’t it?
Yes! I was talking to a foreign friend the other day and we were saying that you feel this change in perception most strongly when you are leaving the house but realize you forgot something. There’s no one there to tell you off if you do enter the house with your shoes on, but it just feels so … wrong!
I don’t like slippers in general and I think it’s my mother’s influence. She does not have any in her home, for her or for my father nor guests, including in the toilet though, mind you, the place is clean.
I have slippers for guests and flip-flops for myself but often just go w/o them. My bathroom is more of a room than a toilet with the same “flooring” as in other rooms and silk and wool carpets so no slippers there.
I know I’m not your typical Japanese.
Hey, I’m not your typical Belgian either 🙂 I think more and more, people in Japan are just finding their own preferred way of doing things, rather than using the traditional way.
At first, I thought the toilet slippers were a bit much. But then one night I visited a very small izakaya, that had kind of a living room feel (it was just in someone’s house). There was a nomikai going on and when I went to use the unisex restroom (they only had one toilet), I was so thankful for the toilet slippers!!! Drunk salarymen have bad aim ^_^
I just remembered my mother wears slippers in her kitchen!
One of my grandmothers had toilet slippers in her apartments in Columbus OH and Minneapolis. And we still mostly take off our shoes in the house. I have my “indoor” shoes that I only wear inside.
It is very interesting to hear that in some families in the US, people are also ‘shoe conscious’. 🙂
In our family in Belgium we also take our shoes off in the house. But when we have guests, we often don’t ask them to take off their shoes because some people in Belgium consider that a bit rude. But of course that kind of defeats the purpose of taking shoes off in the house, especially when there is carpeting. Maybe I should just get a bunch of guest slippers and a pair of toilet slippers and be disciplined about it from now on.