One all-important type of etiquette to observe and practice during your stay in Japan is related to the removal of outdoor footwear, such as shoes or boots, upon entering certain buildings. These buildings include such places as tea houses, certain restaurants, people’s homes, temples, and more.
Why Do Japanese People Take Their Shoes Off Inside?
The etiquette involved is likely primarily related to the protection of the “Tatami” mats that were traditionally used as flooring in homes and other buildings. The tatami mat is a finely woven grass mat about 5-6 cm thick and around 2 meters in length. The size of rooms in Japan today is still measured according to the number of tatami, even in the ultra-modern areas of Tokyo.
The edges of these mats are often decorated with beautiful brocaded borders. Such mats are kept pristinely clean as much as possible and are sensitive to hard materials such as the soles of outdoor footwear.
Protecting the tatami flooring in a Japanese building is a high priority for maintaining a pristine environment. While wooden flooring or other hard floor construction styles are also popular today, tatami mats are still used in many homes, restaurants, temples, and so on. Often a building will be a combination of different flooring styles, with a tatami area and a wooden or similar hard floor area.
Entering A Japanese House
Upon entering such a building you will likely notice a shelf for shoes or possibly just a special entrance area with a step up into the building itself. You may also find that there are slippers or sandals provided for you to wear. If the area you are stepping onto is covered in tatami mats, there will likely not be any slippers as only socks are to be worn on such flooring since it is a relatively sensitive material. When stepping into the building in your slippers or socks, make sure not to step where you had stepped with your outdoor footwear as this will potentially track dirt into the rest of the building.
How To Use Slippers in Japan
Should you be provided slippers or sandals to use while walking around the building, there are a couple of places you should be aware of where you will likely be expected to change once again. One, as discussed before, is prior to stepping on any of the tatami mats.
If you encounter a room or area with a tatami mat floor, just remove your indoor footwear and leave it outside the door to that room.
How To Use Toilet Slippers In Japan
Another primary place where you will likely find yet another change of footwear will be expected is in the lavatory area where you will usually find a pair of slippers waiting. This may come as a surprise, but the lavatory is generally considered to be a very different space in Japanese footwear terms.
There is usually one pair of slippers or sandals per lavatory and this special footwear is intended to only be worn inside the lavatory area! If at all possible, DO NOT wear any lavatory footwear into the rest of the building as you leave the lavatory area. If you do forget, do know it is usually just going to be amusing to the Japanese people you are with.
However, stepping on nice tatami with lavatory slippers could be a little less amusing.
Inside Footwear Rules Basics
Here is a quick review of the general procedure.
- Enter the building, and outdoor footwear is removed in the entryway prior to stepping up into any other areas of the building.
- If there are slippers or sandals and you aren’t stepping onto tatami mats, put the slippers on and make sure you do not step where you stepped with your outdoor footwear.
- If there are no slippers or sandals or there are tatami mats, then wear your socks into the room.
- When entering the lavatory, take off your indoor slippers or sandals and put on the slippers or sandals in the lavatory.
- When exiting the lavatory, by all means, take off the lavatory footwear prior and do not step with your socks or feet in the lavatory,
- Do not step into another room with the lavatory footwear.
Do your best and remember that any Japanese people around will be happy to help you and also likely be impressed by you already knowing how to put your best foot forward in a Japanese way.