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The Taking Off Shoes Ritual in Japan

By Yae Nov 5, 2017

This post is also available in: Italian

What’s the meaning of wearing shoes in your daily life?
Is it part of your fashion? Comfortable for jogging?
You all wear shoes like it’s the most natural things in your lives but have you ever thought about the purpose or reason of the timing you take off your shoes?

The foreigners who live in Japan or people who had a chance to visit Japanese friends’ house may already know that Japanese people take off their shoes at the entrance of their houses in general.

This article will show you the backgrounds of taking off the shoes in Japan.

1. Why People Wear Shoes Anyway?

Have you ever thought about when and why people started to wear shoes in Japan?

Japanese people started to wear shoes from the Yayoi period (about 2,300 years ago) for rice cultivation.
At that time, people were wearing Waraji (it’s straw sandals) or Zori (Japanese-style sandals that are consisted of a flat sole with V-shaped between the big toe and other toes.)
Geta (Japanese wooden footwear) was also popular and people wore Geta in rainy days since teeth on Geta helps to avoid touching the wet grounds directly so people didn’t get wet on their feet.
These types of shoes were used until the end of Edo period.


However, the image of shoes changed when Japanese people started to trading with western people from the Meiji period and this was the start of spreading western-type of shoes in Japan.


2. Why do People take their Shoes off?

People started to take off their shoes at the entrance in Japan for 2 major reasons:

<Reason 1> Particular to the Climate of Japan

It’s related to the climate of high temperature and high humidity in Japan.

If you’ve already experienced once summer here, you can imagine how humid it could be in Japan right? It rains frequently in Japan throughout the year and people don’t want to enter the house with dirty wet shoes to the room gets messy and dirty with mud, therefore shoes should be taken off at the entrance.
Almost every family has doormats at home, but they won’t get rid of 100% dirt and without taking off the shoes, people will suffer from endless cleaning issues.


<Reason 2> House was Treated as Sacred Space


People also say the origin of taking off the shoes in Japan came from the raised floor storehouse used in Meiji period.

The storehouse was used for keeping the rice paddy that people harvested and tried to avoid humidity from outside.
The big amount of rice paddy indicated the absolute power so the storehouse was treated as sacred space, therefore, stepping into the storehouse with dirty was considered as bad manners.

3. When and Where People Take Off Their Shoes?

There are several situations people take off shoes such as follows:

(1) At the Entrance of Houses

This is a common habit in every house in Japan. There are shoe racks in every house and people put their shoes inside and normally, people wear room slippers or walk bare feet in their houses.

However, if there is a floor with Tatami (Japanese traditional straw mats that are still found in most of Japanese houses), you must take off the room slippers as well. It’s bad manner to walk on Tatami even with room slippers, only stockings or socks are allowed for Tatami.

(2) Some Izakaya Restaurants

You can experience at some Izakaya restaurants which have the concept of
“Enjoy your dinner like you’re at your home” without having your shoes on.

You take off the shoes at the entrance and spend your time there with bare feet.
People can feel relaxed without shoes even they feel tired from walking so much.
The room’s floor is covered with Tatami and you sit on it with Zabuton (Japanese sitting cushion.)


(3) At the Entrance of Temples and Shrines

Temples and shrines are the sacred place that deemed as where Gods live in Japan, thus it is a bad manner to step into the grounds with shoes on.


(4) Tea-ceremony Room

Since tea-ceremony is held in a Tatami room, it’s bad manner to wear shoes for this ceremony.
However, you must be careful that you must wear a pair of stockings or socks or
Tabi (It’s Japanese-style socks with separate division for the big toe and the other toes.
Normally the color is white.) when you step into the room.

(5) At School

Normally students must take off their shoes at the entrance of school (elementary school, middle school and high school) and change to indoor shoes called “Uwabaki” in Japanese.
There are huge shoe racks at the entrance of school and each student have their own shoe rack area with their name on it.

The reason why students need to take off their shoes are:

1. Students must clean up the school floors and rooms by themselves every day.
2. Students must prepare for the lunch every day so they need to care about the sanitary condition.

Do you see the reason why Japanese people take off their shoes in several situations? It’s not that Japanese people are the clean freak so they don’t want to wear shoes in their houses but there are several traditions as well as sanitary reasons behind such ritual. However, even you’re not used to be bare feet or to wear room shoes at your home, you should try doing it for a while and you’ll get amazed how easy it becomes to clean up the room floor.

If you are someone who totally loves walking around without wearing shoes, then, definitely enjoy your ‘feet-freedom’ in Japan!