Slipper Etiquette

“You hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”  Matthew 23:25

Slippers

Shame can occur in many forms in Japan, but a rather comical and fairly common shame-related incident is for a guest to absentmindedly wear slippers designated exclusively for the toilet area into other parts of the house. This is considered to be a significant faux pas in Japanese culture, but even though it is acutely embarrassing for the unwitting perpetrator, it is usually ignored by polite hosts. However, to grasp the import of this particular incident, one must understand the broader concept of slipper etiquette in Japan and the values that undergird it.

Every house and even the tiniest apartments in Japan have at their entrance a space called the “genkan.” It might be referred to it as an “entry way” or something similar in western culture, but the purpose of the genkan is very specific. It is the designated area that separates outside dirt or uncleanness from the interior of one’s living area because it is unthinkable in Japan to wear shoes used outdoors into a house. Therefore, shoes are customarily removed in the lower part of the genkan while being careful not to step on the “contaminated” floor in socked feet. Following this initial maneuver, one is then expected to step up to the elevated portion of the genkan into slippers that are provided by the host. Usually, the host will then proceed to turn your shoes to face the door in the lower half of the genkan for your eventual departure. However, all this is only the first phase of proper slipper etiquette.

A general rule of thumb for successfully adapting to different customs in a foreign culture is to observe and copy the locals. The same applies to entering someone’s house as a guest and knowing where it is okay to walk in your provided slippers, as there can be subtle differences in application. For example, the common practice is NOT to wear slippers on tatami mats (woven straw flooring), a porch, balcony or in the toilet area. Different slippers are usually provided for the bathroom since that area represents another degree of uncleanness that should not be carried into other parts of the house. Separate slippers for a porch area are usually conveniently located at the entrance should someone chose to venture from the “clean” area of the house.

While it is not practical for companies and businesses to restrict employees or customers from entering their premises in outside shoes, it is surprising to observe that public schools, churches, hospitals, public baths and some hotels typically maintain the practice of expecting people to take off their shoes at the entrance. To facilitate this on a large scale, an array of small lockers or cubby holes are located nearby for the temporary storage of outside shoes and a steady supply of clean slippers are provided for general use.

In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people, the Jews, were well drilled on ceremonial law and as a result, they were fastidious in their efforts to ensure cleanliness in the external aspects of their daily lives. However, as Jesus strongly pointed out, this emphasis on external cleanliness often failed to carry over to the far more important dimension of moral cleanness. In fact, Jesus was quite outspoken in his criticism of this hypocrisy because matters of the heart or soul always outweigh superficial, external activities. The prophet Isaiah was keenly aware of this inconsistency when he cried out “Woe to me. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5) This verse is a vivid reminder that while it is a good thing to keep dirt out of one’s house, we should be far more diligent to avoid defilement in our lives.