Japanese Shoe Rules

As I’m sure many of you have probably already heard: Japanese people wear house shoes. I grew up running around barefoot. Heck, I even remember stubbing my big toe on the pavement as a 4 or 5 year old and my mom having to bribe me with an early gift just so I’d let her clean it up. Or what about the time that me and two other friends took our shoes off to walk through a creek in elementary school? One of my friends ended up with leaches on her foot and the other two of us tried helping her by knocking the leaches off with a stick. Did either of these instances stop me from running around outside barefoot – nope! I’m sure many Americans have similar stories.

Well, the Japanese don’t typically grow up the same way. In this post I will first explain the rules, as I understand them, for the Japanese and their shoes. Then I’ll briefly discuss how Yohei and I combine our two cultures, regarding shoes, in our house in America.

7 Important Japanese Shoe Rules

Rule 1: Always wear shoes outside.

I’m sure this probably doesn’t apply to every Japanese person in Japan, however, I never saw anyone in Japan walking around barefoot and Yohei seems discussed at the idea. When walking into a Japanese house, there is usually a place in the entryway where you are expected to remove your “outdoor shoes.”

Rule 2: “Outdoor shoes” and “indoor shoes” don’t mix.

When you enter a Japanese house you are required to remove your outdoor shoes and then step into “indoor shoes.” Or as you’ll hear me refer to them from here on out as “house shoes.” Many homes have a small area near the front door that is lower than the rest of the house. It’s called a “genkan.” You take your shoes off and leave them, out of the way, on the genkan. You then step up onto the house level and into the house shoes. The outdoor shoes never leave the genkan area, except if you need to leave the house, and the house shoes never enter the genkan area.

Rule 3: You always wear the “house shoes” when in the house.

Usually, the shoes worn in the house are just slippers. Each family member usually has a certain pair that they always wear. The family also usually has a few pairs set aside for guests. While I was visiting Yohei’s parents, I was given a pair of pink shoes to wear during my stay. Here they are:

shoes 33

You are, for the most part, expected to wear them everywhere in the house. I say “for the most part” because sometimes someone will only have socks on or be barefoot for a little bit. Most of the time though, the shoes are worn. There are a few other instances where you don’t wear them, but I’ll explain them in some of the other rules. The main point to take away from this is that, if visiting Japan, just be prepared to be assigned shoes for when inside. I’m sure there are probably some Japanese families who don’t require this, but not in any of the homes I saw while in Japan.

Rule 4: Not only homes require “indoor shoes.”

Most places you visit, like shopping centers or movie theaters, allow you to just walk in with your outdoor shoes. Other establishments, like vet offices, require you to change into indoor shoes. While in Sendai, Yohei’s dog Koyuki was injured and needed to be taken to the vet. The vet office has a small tiled area in the entry way where we had to switch out our shoes for “indoor shoes” before being allowed to step off the tile. The vet office had a short metal shoe stand with many slippers hanging on it. All of the adult shoes were the same size and there were a few children pairs that were smaller. On that particular vet visit, it was so busy that many of the shoes were already taken by other clients. There were only two pairs of shoes left after we entered: One adult pair and one child pair. While waiting to see the vet, another couple entered and I witnessed the women actually do her best to wear the children’s pair because she knew she wasn’t supposed to walk barefoot or even in socks.

Also, certain restaurants will take your shoes and store them for you during your stay. Not all restaurants do this, however, the ones that I had do this did not give me house shoes in replacement. Instead, we were allowed to be barefoot or in our socks. The floors are super clean though so it’s not a big deal at all. We have a friend who is a chef at an extremely nice restaurant in Sendai. It was only during my time at that place that this happened and it depended on where we sat. If we ever went into an individual room, that had only a single table, then we took off our shoes. The table was on a lower floor (kind of a hole just in the center of the room with just enough space for the table) and we sat on the main floor with our feet on the lower floor under the table. Just something to keep in mind for some places in Japan. Don’t be shocked if they ask for you to remove your shoes and then they leave with them. They will also take your jacket away. Your stuff will be returned to you when you’re ready to leave.

On a side note- your Jacket or bag is usually taken at restaurants because the Japanese don’t like to put that kind of stuff on the floor. They will either take it for you and place it in a closet or they will give you a basket to store it in while there. This is true even for homes. In America, I would come home from class and place my backpack on the floor. In Japan, I would instead set my backpack on a chair or something.

Rule 5: Restrooms sometimes have separate shoes for you to wear while in there.

I’m not sure how common this is in public places, however, in private homes it is usually required to switch into “restroom shoes” when you need to use the restroom. The restroom shoes always stay in the restroom and are the same shoes that each person uses when in there. Usually the toilet is in it’s own room, without a washing place or sink, and the shoes are right to the side of the door when you open it. You change into them by stepping out of your house shoes, leaving them in the hallway, and then stepping into the restroom shoes. Just something you might encounter if visiting a private home in Japan.

Rule 6: Sometimes homes have a “washitsu room” where no shoes are allowed at all.

This room has a special floor called a “tatami floor.” While visiting Yohei’s  parents, I only used this room to change into a kimono. While the rest of the home had normal american doors, this room had sliding doors. I’d have to leave my house shoes outside the room and enter barefoot or in socks only. As you can see behind Yohei, in the picture below, our shoes are still in the hallway.

shoes yohei

I’m not sure how big these rooms normally are, however, the rooms at both his parent’s house and his grandmother’s house are pretty small. I don’t have many pictures of the room, however, I do have a few from when I wore kimonos. Here are two pictures I have of the bottom of my kimono and my weird kimono socks.

shoes meshoes feet

Rule 7: Place your “outdoor shoes” either out of the way or facing away from you once wearing the “house shoes.”

This one really depends on where you’re at. In some houses the host will try and be nice and do it for you. If you’re at the house a lot, once you’re standing in the house shoes, try to place your outdoor shoes to the side so that they aren’t blocking the entry too much. If you are just visiting the house for a little bit, then once you’re standing in the house shoes, bend over and turn your outdoor shoes so that they are facing away from you. This way, when it’s time to leave, you can just step out of your house shoes and easily back into your outdoor shoes. The same should also be done when leaving the house. After you step back into your outdoor shoes, flip the house shoes around so that they will be easy for the next guest to step into when visiting.

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So, those are the 7 rules that I have. Now how does all this play into Yohei and I’s relationship? Basically, I follow the rules when I’m in Japan because I believe it’s good to respect their culture when visiting their country. Whenever Yohei and I visit other American houses we follow their rules, however, we do change things up in our own American home.

Before I met Yohei, I use to wear shoes in the house or walk around barefoot. It just wasn’t a big deal. Now dating Yohei though, things have kind of changed. We have a shelf next to our front door that we swap our outdoor shoes out for house shoes. We each have a designated pair and the outdoor shoes are allowed to touch the same shelf space as the house shoes. We don’t really have extras though because most people that visit are American and don’t care. We don’t require other people to take off their shoes when they come over. It’s really up to them though. Sometimes if a Japanese person happens to visit, I will give up my house shoes and walk around barefoot because I know it matters more to them. Sometimes I forget to wear my indoor shoes anyways.

Although Yohei NEVER forgets his house shoes,  he never judges me for forgetting to wear mine. Most of the time I do wear them because I’ve gotten use to it. I have three dogs that like to sit near me so sometimes they’ll accidentally push my house shoes under the bed or couch and I’ll not realize it right away.

What about the dog’s feet? The dogs are allowed to walk into and out of the house without wiping their paws or wearing booties. The only exception is when it’s muddy from rain. We actually have a small trashcan that stays by the back door just for when it’s muddy. We also keep containers of wet wipes by the back door and napkins. When it’s muddy, we have a procedure we follow. We only let one dog out to use the restroom at a time. When each dog reenters the house, we wet wipe each paw and then dry them with a napkin if needed. The dirty wipes and napkins are thrown away in the small trashcan and then the dogs are free to walk around the house again.

This is our compromise. In Japan it’s more strict. Yohei’s dog Koyuki is carried outside and walked until she uses the restroom. We then carry her back upstairs. There are wipes near the door that are used to clean her paws before she is allowed to be placed on the main floor of the house again. This is required every single time no matter what. She is a small dog. If I ever live in Japan, this will be the expectation. While in America though- not so much.

Anyways, I hope this has been interesting. Feel free to comment your experiences below too. Below is a picture of where we keep our house shoes at our home in America. All of these are house shoes except the blue sneakers. But the white ones on the bottom tend to get dirty too easily. 🙂