Shoes Make the Man


Recently I realized that I have a tremendous number of shoes (and a desire to buy more); kind of ironic, since I live in a country where it is hard to come by shoes in my size. One reason for the volume of footwear is that I work at six different schools. We can wear shoes inside, but they must be shoes that are only worn inside. Carrying shoes about in my bag seemed like a pain since I am already carrying a lot of teaching supplies as well, so I bought inexpensive shoes to leave in the getabako (下駄箱) at each school. Health and safety issues predicate that I avoid wearing the school slippers. They are slippery vinyl and far smaller than my feet. Work often requires me to rush about and climb stairs. After one event where a slipper launched off my toe halfway up a staircase while holding a DVD player, I promptly bought the first pair of “inside” shoes. The backs of the slippers are usually jamming into the middle of my heel and I spend the entire day on my feet. This caused some foot problems in the past and has solidified my resolve to have nice footwear for work.

Footwear in my genkanHere’s a shot of some footwear in my genkan (玄関・entry hall). From left to right: beach sandals, tatami zori (畳草履), and geta (下駄). On the top: tabi (足袋). Tatami zori are flip-flops with tightly woven grass on the surface. I’m due for another pair since these are well-loved. Salt water from a few sailing trips had its way with them.

Geta are traditional wood sandals. They have high cleats on the bottom which are nice on wet dirt roads. Japanese people generally get a very romantic and nostalgic feeling when they hear the clip-clop sound from walking in geta. Generally it is considered difficult to walk in geta, but I jumped right into them with little trouble. The other day I even played basketball in them. (We did lose and I couldn’t get a decent jump shot.) Driving in geta should be avoided; especially in the tiny kei (軽) cars. This pair is made from very young wood which makes them light, but also very easy to wear down.

Tabi are kind of like socks and kind of like slippers. They have a side for the big toe and for the other toes – like a mitten for your foot. If one is wearing a kimono (formal wear), then tabi should be put on before geta or zori. If one is wearing yukata (浴衣), jinbee (甚兵衛), or other casual wear, then the feet should be bare inside the geta. My tabi had to be special ordered because of size.

Japanese people believe that wearing footwear which separates the big toe is very healthy. I don’t know why, but you can bet I’ll be asking someone eventually.

This photo also gives a nice understanding of the typical genkan. The tiled area is at ground level and would have been hard-packed earth in a traditional home. The raised area is the floor. Note that the tabi are on the floor and the outside footwear is on the tiles. This protocol should never be violated.


12 Responses to “Shoes Make the Man”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    Do people sit down to remove/put on footwear, or bend over? What is the etiquette there? Bum to the wall? Eyes averted? Or is it a free-for-all? Is there an order for doffing/donning? Elders before children? Ladies first?

  2. びっくり Says:

    Sylvia – excellent question! We have a saying in Japan: junin toiro (十人十色). For those of you that can’t read kanji, it means “ten people, ten colors”, color can mean style, behavior, type, likes/dislikes, etc. In answer to your question: it depends on the person.

    Some folks will sit on the raised floor to put on shoes. That isn’t very lady-like, so you won’t see very proper women doing it. Youths usually just crush the backs of their shoes so severely that the can be kicked off and on like slippers. Nice schools and hotels will have long handled shoe horns to help us be proper. If one must bend it is probably more polite to bend the knees, but waist-benders can be found as well. Many people jam their feet partway into their shoes and scuffle out quickly, trying to get them on completely sometime before arriving at their car. I have seen young ladies walking about with dainty shoes towering over long spike heels without the straps fastened. I have no idea how they stay upright.

    Now, I am going to be watching everyone in genkans for the next week looking for a pattern.

    There is definitely order to entering and exiting. Older and more important people take precedence. Sometimes there is bickering over how unimportant each person is in an attempt to allow others to go ahead of them. They are very aware of the traditional Western chivalry which they call “lady first”; however it is not practiced, and most women can’t be forced to go ahead because the ingrained tendency is to go last. (This is one of the reason loser guys come to Japan… the women think we are very chivalrous and they are easily impressed… oh, wait a minute, that sounded like I was calling myself a loser guy, doh!)

  3. Sylvia Says:

    I must say that’s quite sad that the women automatically go last. What about door-holding?

  4. びっくり Says:

    Well, once you slide a door open, it doesn’t need to be held. 🙂 Yeah, the going last thing can grate on a lot of foreigners, but Japanese women are quite tough and take care of their own. Often we think we need to teach them the better foreign way; however, we have to learn what is superficial and what lies beneath. Personally, I think the average Japanese woman has far more drive and spirit than the average Japanese man.

    I had a girlfriend when I worked here many, many years ago. When we walked “side-by-side”, she was always a step behind me. I talked to her about it and she insisted it wasn’t true. I tried slowing down more and more, but would come to a stop with her maintaining the gap. I tried putting my hand on her back, but my arm got tired from the constant pressure to return to the status quo. I even scolded her about it, of all the silly things to do.

  5. Sylvia Says:

    Drive and spirit are great, but respect is nice too. 🙂

  6. びっくり Says:

    Oh, of course, most women in Japan are very respectful… or, did you mean receiving respect would be nice? 😉 I think most of the men actually respect (or fear) the women tremendously; however, they often fail to show it by being respectful.

    There has been a trend lately of men honoring their wives. Theory has it that this was brought about by the large number of women divorcing their retiring husbands. The men were tolerated when they were working 15 hours a day, but once they were around the house all day… I have met a lot of older men who won’t say a bad word about their wives, even amongst “the guys” when out drinking: this bodes well for the future.

  7. Sylvia Says:

    😛 Yes, I meant “being respected” is nice. It’s nice to hear that Japanese women aren’t being taken for granted so much.

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  9. George Says:

    I’ve spent time with Japanese college students in the United States for the first time. Asked what things surprised them, one comment was “everybody holds doors for everyone.”

    I realized that in Japan the doors are nearly all automatic or as mentioned in the article, stay open.

    I think in the US, it’s a courtesy thing that has gotten out of hand. I see people contorted like advanced yoga students trying to hold a door that really doesn’t need holding. Of course 2 minutes later in the parking lot they’ll scream and gesture at you if you dare to block their driving progress for 2 seconds.

  10. びっくり Says:

    George, thanks for commenting. Yes, there are a lot of automatic doors in Japan, but we still have a lot of normal doors in my area. A lot of the doors are sliding doors, which also don’t need to be held open.

    I have definitely seen (and done) some of the contorted yoga posing of which you speak, but I try not to do any screaming or gesturing in the parking lot. Thanks again for posting.

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