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The Green, Green Plastic of Home


Enough general knowledge of Japanese customs has now spread around the world to ensure that few newcomers to this country are surprised to find they must remove their shoes when entering someone's home. But most of those who stay for longer periods are generally surprised to learn that there is more to it than the simple equation: outdoors = shoes on ... indoors = shoes off. There are quite a number of rules governing the use of footwear around the home, and even in a small place like my 3DK apartment, it can get ridiculously complicated. The entire floor space here is only about 60 square meters, yet it contains no less than five distinct 'zones', in each one of which different footwear is required.

The 'genkan' is the first zone one encounters. Although actually located in the home, inside the front door, it is of course considered to be 'outdoors'. No matter how cleanly it may have been scrubbed, and how bright the floor tiles, it is 'dirty', and no one from the house could possibly step into it without wearing outdoor footwear.

From the genkan into the house proper, there is always a step up. In a traditional house, this may be quite a substantial stretch upwards, necessitating the use of an intermediate stone step, but in modern apartments like mine, it is usually reduced to a three or four centimetre 'bump' where the wooden flooring starts. But the change in level is mandatory, and guests are normally greeted with the words 'oagari kudasai' ... 'Please come on up.' And as they step up, stepping out of their shoes in the process, they usually find awaiting them on the new level, a pair of slippers.

There are great opportunities for personal expression in this slipper-donning ritual, and the performance can actually reach virtuosic heights. To loosen one's shoes, step out of them smoothly, leave them positioned off to one side where they won't disturb the person coming in behind you, of course 'turned around' so they will be ready to step into when you leave later (all this without using your hands), and then to triumphantly slide into the waiting slippers, without either leaning against the wall, or missing a beat in your greeting ... Yes, true virtuosity!

This ordeal over, you are now in the main 'zone' of the home, the slipper zone, these days usually wooden flooring or carpet. Although it is certainly permitted to move around this area in stocking feet, a guest will not generally be allowed to do this, and will be constantly pressed to wear the slippers. But what is far more confusing to the novice, is to find that these slippers, donned with so much difficulty at the genkan, must be removed just a few moments later, as he reaches the next 'level', the tatami room.

One could no more wear slippers on tatami, than one could wear muddy boots in the rest of the house. Although the ostensible reason is to protect the surface of the mats from abrasion by footwear, the real motivation is to reinforce the feeling of moving up to the new 'higher' level. So off they come, and during the time one is in this room, no other footwear will be permitted.

So our guest can finally relax here in his socks ... at least until the effect of the numerous cups of tea he has been served start to take effect, leading to the next stage in the footwear adventure ... Stepping off the tatami back into the slippers, which his considerate host will have turned around for him, he is directed to the small room containing the toilet (a room for which we have no word in English ... It's not a bathroom, is it?) As he opens the door to this cubicle, he finds yet another pair of slippers facing him, as the slippers he is wearing must not be allowed to become sullied by use in this room. He must repeat his genkan contortions, stepping out of one pair, straight into the other, although this time with far less space in which to maneuver.

Once his business is finished, the process is repeated in reverse. To commit the sin of walking back through the house wearing those 'filthy' toilet slippers! Of course, they will actually be 'hospital' clean, but it's the thought that counts ...

Safely back on the tatami, our guest may think that he has seen all that this home has to offer in the way of footwear, but he would be mistaken. Perhaps his host is a fancier of 'bonsai' and extends an invitation to inspect his latest tiny creation ... out on the balcony. Out on the balcony where ... you guessed it, more slippers await. This time one steps down, as befits the change from 'inside' to 'outside'.

Those slippers will be 'dedicated' to balcony use, but in homes where the garden can be reached this way, through sliding doors off one room, even more slippers are of course positioned at the ready, below the door. In this case, there is likely to be quite a flock of them waiting there. This is due to the fact that people quite frequently leave and enter their home by different routes. Out the sliding door into the garden ... back in through the genkan ... There thus has to be enough footwear lying all over the place to ensure that something is always there ready at each exit. So even households with only a few members will still have enough footwear on hand to outfit an army, and the mountains of shoes and slippers to be found scattered all around the home of large families must be seen to be believed. (Actually, there are still other 'zones' demanding specific types of footwear, but as guests are not likely to find themselves standing in plastic booties cleaning the bath, it's probably best to leave it here ...)

Now after this rather longish introduction, I should perhaps finally get to the thing I intended to mention when I picked up my pencil this evening ... I recently made a small alteration in my home, one that I am enjoying immensely, but which has had the side effect of confusing all my Japanese visitors. Shoes on? Shoes off? They can't figure out what to do.

What did I do to cause this confusion? Simply I went to a nearby 'home centre' and picked up a few cartons of artificial turf, but instead of using it in the garden as they advertised, I covered the dirty concrete surface of my balcony with it. This 'turf' has a raised plastic base on which tufts of green plastic are mounted, and water thus drains away through it easily. So although our balcony is exposed to rain, it is now always dry to the step. And as the rain washes away any dust and dirt, this green surface is always very clean. In my mind, the balcony is now a 'no-shoes' zone ... an extension of our living space. I sit out there and read books, eat lunch at a low table, or even stretch out on the 'grass' for naps. It has become my favourite 'room', and I truly wish that I had done this years ago.

But guests? They can't figure out what to do! They pause at the door, ready to step out onto the green surface, and look around for slippers. But of course there aren't any, and they thus remain frozen in the doorway. Even seeing me standing out there in my bare feet or socks isn't enough to convince them that it's really OK to come out. Their conditioning is simply much too strong. On the balcony ... with no shoes ... On grass ... with no shoes ... Impossible!

I certainly get a bit of a laugh out of seeing them caught in the same type of situation that I faced so many times when first in this country ... So dare I say it? Now the shoe is on the other foot!