Sunday, July 20, 2008


What is the first rule of life in a Japanese domicile? Remove your shoes. Knowing this is the easy part. The hard part is convincing Japanese people that they aren't the most special, clean and unique people on the entire planet and the only ones whose culture embraces shoe removal.

One of my students did a home stay in Arizona during her first trip to the U.S. and told me that she was shocked that her home stay family took off their shoes upon entering their home. She was absolutely incredulous when I told her that my in-laws also required people to remove their shoes upon entering their home as did my one of my aunts and my maternal grandmother. Yes, many Americans do not take off their shoes when entering their homes, but many of them do.

Does taking your shoes off make you a paragon of cleanliness? No, it doesn't make you anything in particular. It could mean you're clean or it could mean you're too lazy to vacuum. It could also mean that you don't have any pets who will track in as much or more dirt than humans (or leave hair everywhere) or that your flooring or carpeting shows dirt more easily than others.

In cases where there is a culture-wide shoe removal tradition (as opposed to individual choices as is the case in the U.S.), racially-determined attention to cleanliness is not the main factor in creating a fastidious culture. The main factors are weather and technological development. People who live in cold weather most of the time are far less likely to adopt the custom of shoe removal as their feet are going to freeze on cold floors without some extra insulation. I'm guessing few indigenous Alaskan peoples were kicking off their mocs to keep the floor clean. They'd rather keep their toes.

In terms of technology, people who don't develop along lines where they live further from the floor are more likely to adopt a custom of shoe removal. The Japanese traditionally sit, sleep, and eat on the floor. When you're that close to the ground all the time, having the cleanest possible floor becomes rather more important than when you're perched quite high above it, especially if you want to keep your blanket, clothes, and matzo mattress (aka futon) from turning black in no time.

Yet, when it comes to the issue of shoe removal, a little shine of smug and superior comes through any time the topic is broached. Every person (from any country) who says he or she has a habit of shoe removal upon entering the home speaks as if they are the pinnacle of clean and sanitary living. There is an undercurrent of 'we invented the unique notion of taking off our shoes out of thin air' or that their culture stands alone as a paragon of shining whiteness and purity for their customs. Okay, that's not exactly true of most Americans who don't give a rat's ass about what other people think of their habits, but I recently encountered someone who said that shoe removal was a "Canadian thing" for cleanliness and comfort. Yes, the Canadians are known throughout the world for their hockey, maple syrup, Mounties and shoe removal upon entering the home.

When I return to the U.S., I probably will take my shoes off at the door all the time because it is a bit cleaner, but I'm not going to be smug about it or put on airs of being closer to God because of it. After all, wiping your shoes off at the door is probably only marginally dirtier than removing them anyway, but I think the notion of wiping your feet is nowhere in the picture when shoe removal is discussed (and the Japanese don't use welcome mats). It's not like people in cultures where shoes are kept on are tracking in half the lawn every time they walk in.


Liz Stone Abraham said...

HAHAHA! Before I married I had three Japanese roommates and always felt like the disgusting American who had to remember to take her shoes off at the door. Now, I'm married to a man who also takes his shoes off at the door...I just asked him why...his father was Chinese but he says that's not why he does it. He seems also to feel superior about his shoe removal habit. Hm.

Orchid64 said...

I'd probably say that it's unfortunate that he can't remember to take a few seconds to give his shoes several good swipes on the mat before walking in so he has no choice but to remove his shoes after he's already inside. ;-)

There's an odder smugness about using chopsticks that I tend to encounter. It's an attitude that says that you must possess superior dexterity to manipulate two sticks and eat with them (though I honestly don't know anyone who hasn't mastered it with a tiny amount of consistent practice). Sometimes I have to restrain myself from saying that it's too bad that cultures that use sticks as utensils never developed the tool-making technology to do better. That's a bit too nasty and would make me appear just as smug as them. And honestly, it's not what I really feel.

As it is, when my students ask, "can you use chopsticks," (as if it's such a challenge!) I reply with, "of course, can you use a knife and a fork?"

badmoodmike said...

The talk of forks and knives and smugness suddenly reminded me of something from the past.

The wife of a former boss had this habit of making sure that everyone noticed that she and her side of the family ate "continental style", which she described as "never putting one's knife and fork down". There were a few other rules that were applicable to this as well, but I never paid any real attention. She described it as the way that upper-class people in Europe eat, for whatever that's worth.

I and other coworkers just thought that she was an idiot. I think her husband did, too.

Orchid64 said...

I've been mocked by people (a Canadian woman I worked with comes to mind) for doing the American "hand switcher" thing where I swap the knife and fork so that the preferred utensil of the moment was always in my right hand. Honestly, I stopped switching not because I cared, but because I got lazier and didn't feel like moving my utensils around anymore. My husband gets around this by cutting up all his food first and then eating it (which is also declassé I believe).

While Europeans (and apparently Australians and Canadians), eat by keeping the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, it's not confined to the upper class. Again, I see it as no great feat of dexterity to eat with a fork in your left hand.

People who have to feel superior over such trivial matters must have serious esteem issues.

Helen said...

I lived on a Canadian farm in my teen years and we usually did remove our boots/shoes at the door. We also had puppies in our kitchen from time to time and it was better to remove shoes rather than tromp on a puppy's foot with them on.

I always at least asked if I should remove my footwear at my friend's homes, it really did depend on the family. The only one of my friends that I used to yell at for wearing dirty shoes into my apartment was born in England.

Go figure!

And, I was a self taught chopstick user so my technique was terrible for years. However, it did work. I'm in the process of changing my technique to the more "Japanese" way and it's tough to remember sometimes. But, I never starved, and isn't that the main point?

Dateline Osaka said...

Shamefully, I'm still in the process of learning when my shoes must be removed, since you seem to have to do it everywhere you go 'round these parts...I was reminded (with the teeniest hint of chastisement)to remove my sandals before stepping into a teeny tiny fitting room to try on a shirt yesterday...*sigh*...Embarrassing if not a little annoying. The floor of the thing was a square of fabric about as big as your average kitchen tile to begin with! ^_^ Have you ever had to try something on in one of those things???

Orchid64 said...

Helen: I'm not sure what Japanese form is for chopsticks, so I may do it wrong, too. That being said, since I almost never eat out anymore, I haven't had occasion to use chopsticks for years!

Dateline: I buy my clothes from the U.S. (by mail order) so they fit my gaijin body (yes, our shapes are different!) so I've never gone into a Japanese fitting room. I'm not even sure all Japanese people know when to remove their shoes automatically so I wouldn't be embarrassed. :-)

Thanks to both of you for commenting!