Thursday, December 9, 2010

Note the Differences - Taking Shoes Off

Well today I was going to start looking at some of the small (and perhaps not so small) differences that I've noticed when it comes to being married with a Japanese. These aren't in any particular order of importance.

The first difference I'll talk about is shoes... and by that I really mean the wearing of shoes inside. Well, it's not like the Japanese are the only people not to wear shoes inside. It’s a common thing in many asian countries, and not uncommon elsewhere. In Australia however, my experience is that it’s much more common not to worry about taking shoes off. I certainly came from a background where you didn't need to -  though that didn’t mean we walked mud in everywhere. Common sense did prevail.

Whilst it may not be uncommon to take shoes off everywhere, in Japan, it's a must. Definitely not a nicety. I have wondered at various points about why it is so important in Japan. Of course, it almost certainly comes from the realities of the climate in Japan and the historical way of life:
+ Japan being a very wet (muddy) country;
+ the use of tatami mats  (and wooden floors which can be readily scratched);
+ the custom of sitting on the floor not to mention sleeping on the floor using futons.

All of these things have lead to a cultural sensitivity to what you walk around with inside. It just made good old plain sense. 

However, a lot of those reasons are no longer relevant... Yet this cultural trait lives on. My theory is that it all goes back to two very fundamental Japanese thoughts. A Japanese (Shinto-like) concept of cleanliness (or purity) and a social concept of inside and outside grouping/living. The view of what is clean and unclean is ancient in the Japanese belief system; along with the idea that walking in the uncleanliness from outside is akin to defilement.

I found it quite amusing on my first trip to Japan when I discovered that I not only had to take my shoes off going inside, but that I needed to make another change when going to toilet... with another special set of slippers kept at the toilet threshold. The toilet represents another form of uncleanliness - and that has nothing to do with whether you leave the seat up or not.

The second, related area was that of the concept of the inside as compared to the outside. There is the concept is known as uchi/soto (uchi - inside; soto - outside). Normally this refers to the distinctions between groups of people (i.e. you should be very polite to those outside your group, but humble to those inside your group... and in this case the Kanji for uchi/soto is actually read as naigai). This can also be extended to inside and outside perspectives to your house... leading to an inside and outside world. The act of crossing the threshold and having to take your shoes off is an act of entering the private, inside world - a place (or refuge) where one can relax and be oneself. Two very different worlds.

Note - I have to be a little careful here.. we sometimes can over-think the conceptual underpinnings of Japanese culture to the point of it being very un-Japanese. And, in the sage words of my wife, T-chan, when asked about the origin of taking shoes when entering into a house... "But it's dirty!" For the Japanese, perhaps there need not be any more explanation required. Another difference is that Japanese often don't look too deeply into why they do what they do. They just do.

To forget to take one's shoes off, is to have enacted one of those unfortunate social blunders that all foreigners must do at one point or another. I'm sure there is shock and dismay in the hearts of all Japanese when someone (a well meaning son-in-law for example) momentarily forgets the rules. I can still remember on my first trip to Japan... I accidentally went to step through the threshold of a temple building with shoes still firmly attached to feet... the monk left me without any uncertainty about that. You learn quickly.

Admittedly, it can get quite tricky when you go out shopping, and you want to try on some clothes. You get to the change room... and you have to take your shoes off - because you are now entering the "inside". As you need to take your shoes off sometimes when changing clothes, this by default means everyone takes their shoes off. Often you need to be on the lookout for different levels (a raised floor etc) that might denote a transition... oh, and seeing a pile of shoes on the ground is a good hint as well. It gets even more strange when you see tradespeople coming into houses - or even furniture removalists - having to take their shoes off. I've even heard tell that burglars will even instinctively take their shoes off. It's just so in-grained socially, cultural and perhaps even morally.

So how did this impact us all the way over here in Adelaide, Australia? Well – there’s the adjustment that we needed to make to our house. Japanese homes typically have an area known as the genken, which is where shoes are removed and stored. Australian homes don’t. Also shoe storage is not something that you will find in most houses here… or for that matter, in most shops. So finding a shoe cupboard was a challenge when we bought our home. IKEA to the rescue. They may not be that stylish, and they may not be that big... but they are at least something.

So we may not have a genken in our home, but at least we've got somewhere to put our shoes. By and large, the no-shoes rule is followed in our house. Tradespeople here will often not defer to our wishes... Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) regulations require appropriate personal protection in the workplace - and that includes appropriate footwear. It's interesting how a cultural perspective will change views on something as basic as OH&S. And T-chan always has to suck-in-her-breath when she sees it... every fibre of her body wants to complain.

The reality is that shoe removal (whilst not compulsory) is a generally something that you accept when you marry a Japanese... and at the end of the day, it does pretty well make a whole heap of sense anyway.

On a side note - our family often muse about the somewhat inconsistent logic of having a no-shoe policy AND at the same time allowing our cat to go in and outside as he pleases. Logic, my 0.75 readers, has nothing to do with it.

Japanese Lesson
Shoes - kutsu (靴)
Inside - uchi ()
Outside - soto ()
Note: Special case for the inside-outside groupings of people:  naigai (内外)


  1. Hi Ben,

    I'm Turkish, living in Australia.Turkish people take their shoes off before they enter a house. I lived in Canada for three years. A lot of people take their shoes off in Canada, too. I am sure a lot of middle eastern people take their shoes off before enter a house. In muslim tradition cleanless is very important. We also pray on the floor using a special small kilim. But the floor your put your kilim has to be clean.

    My husband is English and he doesn't care about cleaning as much as I do. I moved in his house after we got married. Everybody was entering the flat with their shoes on. The carpet is still dirty. (I gave up trying to clean)I don't like seeing him lying down on the carpet with his top off. Then he wants me to give him a hug. No way!

    I'm supporting your wife with her house rules.

  2. Thanks for that Layla, and T-chan (my wife) thanks you to. I know that the shoe removal is very common all over the world (especially from eastern and middle-eastern cultures). I also know that it's quite common in some Scandinavian countries as well... and apparently Canada too.

    I guess many there are many cultures that have come (for different reasons) to the same point.

    Good luck with your own battles. Maybe you start by having a room or two that's shoe free? I think that there's also a steady move away from carpets - here in Australia at least. Too hard to get rid of the dust and dirt.