My mom was Japanese. I was raised with the idea that it is unquestionably taboo to wear shoes in the house. There is absolutely nothing in the entire world that you could do that is worse than wearing shoes in a Japanese person’s house. Nothing. The dog craps on the living room floor, set the house on fire, earthquakes, tsunamis, whatever — they do not compare with walking into the house with your shoes on. It is the unwritten law of the land for Japanese people.
It is so forbidden that it doesn’t even matter if no one is home, you cannot enter a house with your shoes on. I have heard stories on TV news where they talk about burglars entering someone’s home to rip them off and yet the burglars remove their shoes when entering the houses. I’m not making this up. This shows just how engrained in the Japanese psyche removing your shoes, as a sign of respect, is in Japan. Entering someone’s home with your shoes on is just not done here. Period.
Because I was raised in a house with a Japanese mom, I believed that everyone thought this way. That is, until I got into high school in Southern California — and made friends with some typical Southern California kids.
Southern California people are a strange breed. The typical Southern Californian will wear their shoes indoors, but go running around outdoors barefoot. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? I remember inviting a friend over to my house one time and I told him that he had to take his shoes off before entering. He didn’t want to.
“But my feet are dirtier than my shoes.” He insisted. Well, maybe in his case that was so. One time when I visited his house it was so filthy that I didn’t want to take my shoes off. He opened the fridge and took a big swig straight out of a carton of milk. He wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve, then as an after-thought, he held the milk carton towards me and asked, “Oh? Do you want some milk too?”
“Uh, no thanks.” I said. Not only did I not want any milk, I didn’t want to touch anything at that house. The grime in that place gave me the willies.
What a pig sty! I took a shower as soon as I got home.
I had always felt strange when I would be visiting someone’s house and they insisted that I keep my shoes on when I walked inside. Frankly speaking, I find that a bit disgusting. When you are walking around in your shoes outside, you are stepping in all sorts of dirt and debris. And when you stop to think about it, you are also stepping in all sorts of specks of animal excrement, human spittle, gum — Lord knows what else.
So why in the world do people wear their shoes into their homes? Aren’t shoes to protect your feet when walking outside? I never understood this kind of thinking when I lived in the USA and I even understand it less after being in Japan for so long.
You would be surprised at the look of complete horror on a Japanese person’s face were you to step into their house with your shoes on. That is an absolute no-no. But, really folks, if you had one iota of common sense, you’d understand. Only savages, barbarians, and the French, wear their shoes inside the house.
Recently, I’ve been wondering how is it that the Japanese became this way? Certainly Japanese dwellings had dirt floors a few 1,000 years ago. Did they take their shoes off then?
Nearby by my house is a traditional Tatami maker’s home and business. Tatami is the traditional, uniquely Japanese, flooring that you can find in any Japanese home or apartment. Tatami is a flooring mat made of woven rice straw and covered with woven rushes, and they are used to cover the floors of Japanese houses.
I found it interesting that there would be a tatami maker so close to my apartment here in Tokyo in this day and age so I went over and asked about business. The shop is called, “Ishii Tatami Ten” (which translates into “Ishii Tatami Store”). There I found the father, Ken Ishii, with his son, Takuya, hand-weaving tatami like they do everyday, like their family has done everyday — at the same location — for over 90 years. The business was first started by the father’s great grandfather and passed down through the generations. Both father and son seemed to take great pride in their work — as they should. They showed me how tatami is made and, after watching for a while, I now consider tatami as a kind of art.
Business seems good for the Ishii family. Even though modern Japan has wooden floors in most new homes and apartments, there is always at least one room with tatami flooring. My home has both Western style rooms, called “Yo-shitsu” and Japanese style rooms called, “Wa-shitsu.”
Tatami has been used by the Japanese for more than 1,000 years. At first, only warlords and kings used it as an ancient king in Western civilization would use a special chair. In ancient times, in Japan, the person sitting on the tatami was sitting on the throne. The nobility would use the tatami to receive guests. All would understand that the person sitting on the tatami was a king, prince, or leader of a powerful samurai group. Whereas in the west all would bow down in front of a pompous fat jerk sitting on a throne, in Japan they’d have to touch their knees on the dirt in front of a pompous skinny jerk sitting on a tatami.
In the 16th century, tatami, became widely used by the samurai and the merchant classes. Rooms with tatami were considered rooms to be used for important meetings and ceremonies. The rise of the popularity of the very spiritual Tea Ceremony also gave a boost to the wide-spread use of tatami.
Also, since tatami rooms were used for ceremonial purposes, these were the rooms were the samurai would commit “seppuku” (uh, hari-kiri) whenever they screwed up something big-time. Think about it: You go into the clean room to kill yourself — spilling your innards all over the tatami floor — That’s okay. But don’t you be wearing your shoes when you do it. And it is true, when Japanese commit suicide, they will always remove their shoes first. Go figure.
By the 19th century, tatami was used in all Japanese homes and became an integral part of the fabric of Japanese culture. It is still, to this day, the room to be used for important family discussions.
Tatami is perfectly suited to Japan’s climate and to the idea of not wearing shoes inside the home. Tatami is soft and retains heat in the winter, while being cool in the summer. I especially enjoy the fragrance of tatami. It reminds me of the smell of freshly cut hay.
Also, since Japanese apartments and homes are small, tatami is better suited for various uses. A tatami room, with a futon rolled out, may serve as a bedroom at night. In the morning the futon is rolled up and the room may be used for many purposes. This couldn’t be done if there were a bed in the room.
The father of the tatami shop, Ken Ishii, told me that there will always be a future for tatami in Japan as it cannot be manufactured by machines. Each one must be hand made to fit the various special sizes and requirements for certain rooms. No two tatami are alike.
Not only that, but tatami are relatively inexpensive. Depending on quality of materials, one tatami mat cost anywhere between $100 to $500 per piece. Most rooms in an average apartment in Japan are about six tatami.
So tatami fits perfectly with the Japanese temperate weather, and is woven into the culture. It is unthinkable to wear shoes in a Japanese home and especially in a tatami room. This is also why you will never see a Japanese person who is wearing socks that have holes in them. The Japanese consider it quite embarrassing to have to remove their shoes in front of a host only to have holes in their socks. The only person I have ever seen in Japan wearing socks with holes in them was me.
This leads me to ask, in Japan, which came first: The tatami or the socks?
By the way, the son tells me that the Japanese did indeed take their shoes off inside the house more than a thousand years ago when the floors were dirt. He said, “The dirt inside the homes and the dirt outside the homes was different.” I’m sure that is probably true — and how perfectly Japanese!
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.