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Home : Local Reports   : Asahikawa, Japan
"The Japanese don't want to sit down for dinner and put their hand in a little present left on the sidewalk from some gum chewing kid, or some digesting dog."
- Ryan Roling

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Japan

The Bare Facts
by Ryan Roling, 25, Asahikiwa, Japan
Mar 21, 2000

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When I go home after work, I unlock my door, walk in and turn on my heater. This seems perfectly normal to you and me. But, if I were to do so with a Japanese friend of mine, I would no doubt get an exaggerated look with one hand covering his or her mouth and the other pointed down at my feet. Why? Because, in Japan, before you go into a house you always take your shoes off. I have wondered why for quite some time. What is the origin of this custom? Where did it come from and why? I have even asked a number of my friends this question, and yesterday I finally got an answer.

I recently went to the "All-Hokkaido Speech Contest" and one student gave a speech she entitled "The Bare Facts". Her point was to educate her fellow Japanese people on why they do what they do. Most of them don't really know why they do it. But without thought, similar to the way we blink and breathe, the Japanese take their shoes off.

Earlier this fall when I moved from one apartment to another, I was awed by the fact that the men helping me took their shoes off every time they entered my apartment to get a new load to carry out to the truck. My carpet was rolled up, and there were four girls from the high school there, helping by cleaning my floors. So, in my mind, I thought it would be no big deal to just keep our shoes on. It would have saved time and the trouble of holding a refrigerator with one hand while putting our shoes on with the other one. But, logic is different in different cultures. I guess you just learn to accept, remember that you are the visitor in their country, and do as they do (even if you think it's incredibly stupid).

So here is what I learned yesterday. This is why the Japanese take their shoes off before they go inside a house, apartment, and many buildings and restaurants. She gave three reasons for this peculiar custom.

The first one, and probably the origin of the custom, involves (like so many things in Japan) rice. I really love that rice is such an influential factor in the way that these people are. You see, a long time ago, the floors of house were made mostly of "tatami." Tatami is a floor mat, made from a combination of, "wara", the dried stem of a rice plant and,"igusa", a rush stem. The two stems are woven together to form a mat that is placed on the floor of the home. Just as rice was a very important food source, "wara" was also highly valued. Thus, the Japanese people recognized and respected their flooring by taking good care of the tatami mats.

This painstaking care for tatami can also be seen in the design of the houses. Japan has a very humid climate, and because of that, the houses were made to stand off the ground for better ventilation. If a house's floor was made close to the ground the humidity would cause the tatami to rot. If shoes were worn inside, the tatami would become very dirty, possibly get wet, and the mats were difficult to replace. For this reason, people left their shoes at the door- out of respect for tatami.

Another much simpler reason is comfort. The traditional shoe worn in Japan is made of wood, very similar to a simple clog. The foot is held fast to the wood by a string between the big toe and the second toe, going over the foot like our "flip-flops". Needless to say, these were not shoes made for comfort. The Japanese traditional style of sitting is called "seiza". This is when they fold their legs underneath themselves and sit bent-kneed. To wear "geta" (the man's wooden shoe) or "zori" (the woman's wooden shoe) would be terribly uncomfortable. Westerners sit on couches and wear shoes made for comfort, so to go in and relax with our shoes on is actually relaxing. The opposite is true in Japan. Hence, the shoes were taken off at the door, for the sake of comfort.

Finally, the Japanese also tend to sit directly on the floor. They relax on the floor, and they eat dinner on the floor. When one wears shoes in the house, you bring in unwanted dirt and refuse. Leaving the shoes at the door is hygienic. The Japanese don't want to sit down for dinner and put their hand in a little present left on the sidewalk from some gum chewing kid, or some digesting dog. They like to eat their raw fish with clean hands, on clean floors.

That to me, is very understandable.

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