Where did the Japanese custom of taking off shoes before entering a house come from? It began around the Heian period in 794–1192 AD with the upper class, and the custom eventually spread to the other classes.
One of the main reasons for taking off shoes or sandals before entering a house in Japan was actually very practical. The country has a damp climate and a high amount of rainfall. People would often have mud-covered sandals or shoes and would quickly dirty the house if they went inside with shoes or sandals on.
So the main reason Japanese people take off their shoes before entering is for cleanliness. They also take off their shoes because the floor in Japanese homes is where many activities occur, such as eating while seated near the floor and sleeping, which is done on straw mats or cushions, which are called futons.
The inside of an entryway to a house in Japan is called a genkan. The genkan is one step lower than the next hallway or entrance into the house. In the genkan, a structure called a getabako is found where the shoes or sandals that are taken off are placed.
This box gets part of its name from geta, the traditional Japanese footwear with a wooden base with two to three teeth underneath. There is also a variation of the geta called the zōri that has a flat bottom and no teeth underneath.
When one enters the area beyond the genkan on a higher step, there is usually a slipper rack near the getabako, where all slippers are kept that can be worn in the house. There are even different slippers that are used only in the bathroom. In homes with rooms with tatami flooring, a type of straw-covered mat used as a flooring material, no slippers are worn since tatami is difficult to clean and expensive to replace.
Taking off shoes before entering a home is not only limited to Japanese homes. Shoes are expected to be taken off before entering traditional Japanese restaurants, traditional stores, and shrines and temples, to name just a few. The custom doesn’t just take place in Japan, either. Korea, parts of China, and other areas throughout Asia also engage in the practice of taking off shoes before entering a home.
Sources: Japan Horizon, Glad-NPO, Japan-Guide, Matcha