If you look at any guide to Japanese etiquette it will tell you that you must always take off your shoes when you enter a Japanese home. It seems simple enough—no shoes in the house. It’s not really quite that simple though. Japanese shoe etiquette, like most other Japanese etiquette, goes far deeper and even when you think you’ve got it down, you discover there’s some other level to it.
We sat four across, with an aisle in between, on upholstered bench-style seats that faced each other, kind of like booths at a diner but with no table in between. After about twenty hours of solo travel, tiredness was winning out over the exhilaration of finally being in Japan so I decided to put my feet up on the seat of the bench that faced me. As soon as my shoes hit the upholstery my new traveling companions burst into a flurry of protest, “No! No! You can’t put your shoes up there!”
“I can’t put my shoes up there?” Nope. You can’t put your shoes on any surface where any other body part may go, but you can put your (hopefully be-socked) feet on some of them. On my first train ride in Japan I learned I could put my feet up on the facing seat as long as I took my shoes off first. It took a few years before I learned this applies to all seat surfaces, upholstered or not. That lesson was hammered home when I went to stand on a chair in a classroom to reach a ceiling-mounted projector that wasn’t operating properly. That time it was a class of thirty students who erupted in protest at the idea of my sensible mid-height heels touching the surface of a plastic classroom chair. My assumption that the issue had something to do with making upholstered seats dirty had been a false one.
All of this taking off and putting on of shoes makes you rethink your shoe choices. If you know you will be going in and out of homes or visiting a restaurant with the type of seating that requires you to take off your shoes, you learn pretty quickly that wearing Converse All Stars or boots with lots of lacing means you’ll be tugging your shoes on frantically while everyone stands around and waits for you before the group can move. You also have to make sure your socks are clean, hole-free and match each other. As you learn to pay more attention you start to notice that Japanese people line their shoes up neatly in the genkan (entryway) with the toes facing out toward the door. And that the brand labels in your shoes are clearly visible to anyone else who is there with you. It should go without saying that stinky shoes and feet are absolutely out of the question.
When you visit someone’s home, they will usually give you a pair of slippers to wear. Except you can’t wear them everywhere. You can’t wear them in rooms with tatami mats because they can damage the mats. And you absolutely can’t wear them into the restroom, people have special toilet slippers for that. So you have to remember to take off your house slippers, slip on the toilet slippers to wear into the room that generally houses only the toilet and is about the size of a small closet and then the key point is to remember to change back into your house slippers and never, ever, ever go back to join your hosts with your ignorant feet tracking toilet slipper cooties all over the place. Schools and gyms also usually have different zones where different types of footwear are required. You aren’t supposed to wear your street sneakers in the gym. In elementary and secondary schools you have a pair of special sneakers you wear in the main school building and then another pair that is worn only in the gymnasium. In college you can wear your regular shoes anywhere, though. Except when you need to stand on a chair, of course.
A Japanese friend of mine told me a story about when she was in high school and her family hosted an exchange student from America. Every night the exchange student would take her shoes from the genkan and bring them to her bedroom. Every morning my friend would go into the exchange student’s room to get the shoes and put them back where they belonged, in the genkan. She said it used to make her furious that her family’s guest didn’t understand this clear yet unspoken message about the proper place to store her shoes. After growing up and spending a year living abroad in her twenties my friend could laugh at her own assumption that the message in her actions were obvious, but she also illustrated the point that often a foreigner’s awkward lack of Japanese “common sense” isn’t the kind of thing people will verbally correct. I had gotten lucky with the folks I met in Narita Airport that first day. One of the biggest lessons I learned in Japan was that in Japanese society there are endless rules that you can only learn by observation. There are so many things that “everybody knows” that I didn’t. It was humbling, fascinating and one of the best challenges I have ever taken on.