Thursday, January 28, 2010

Genkans keep your floor cleaner

Or:  Why My Mom Is Trying to Teach My Dad a New Trick

I was, and am still, endlessly fascinated by the homogeneity of Japan (at least as compared to the United States).  No major income gaps; no major education gaps; even more striking--no major manners gaps. 

Take shoes, for instance.  You will not find a person in Japan who would walk into a house with their shoes on.  This custom is reflected in the architecture-- all houses, apartments, japanese-style inns are built with a genkan (entryway) with closets and shelves right there for your shoes.  There's also usually a step, so first you take off your shoes and then you step up into the house proper.  I have watched my husband ( a grown-up, for pete's sake) when he's too lazy to take his shoes back off, crawl on his hands and knees back into the house--being careful not to let his shoed feet touch the floor-- to get some forgotten item.  Really.

No one in Japan, I mean literally no one--not even thieves--would ever in a million years step on a tatami mat with shoes on.  Children as young as 18 months can be seen sitting on the genkan step struggling to take their own shoes off.

I meant that about thieves, by the way.  A former student of mine once told me (in halting English) about how her parents house had been broken into.  A window opened, things taken.  The police could tell where the thief had come in since there were shoeprints in the mud outside the window.  Oh dear, I said, wasn't the inside a muddy mess?  No, she replied, just some things were taken.  But, why wasn't there any mud inside the house if the thief had to stand in mud to get in the window?  He took his shoes off, came the inevitable reply.  I was flabbergasted--he took his shoes off?!  Why?  She looked puzzled... but--you can't go inside with shoes on!  This, of course, made me laugh--and then I had to explain (no easy task) what on earth I was laughing about.  I'm still not sure she understood why I thought it was hilarious that the housebreaker had taken off his shoes before breaking and entering (apparently the police give thieves extra time to get their shoes on and off before racing to the scene of the crime...).

If you'd like to actually see what I'm talking about, go rent the movie "Adrenaline Drive" from the foreign film section.  A group of Yakuza (Mafia) are chasing the main characters, chase them into an apartment, step into the genkan (entryway) .... and all 5 crooks remove their shoes before continuing the chase inside the house.  I nearly bust a gut laughing.  My husband looked at me like screws were falling out of my ears--he had not the slightest clue why I was laughing.  I explained.  He didn't get it.  I backed up the tape and showed him the scene, and told him why I thought it was funny.  He just looked at me funny and said, "But, you have to take off your shoes before you go inside."


If GOD showed up on a doorstep in Japan, well, He'd just have to take off His shoes,too.  Come to think of it, maybe God is Japanese, since that's what He told Moses to do (was there a tatami mat inside the Burning Bush?).  But I digress.

Seriously, I love my genkan.  I like having all the shoes right by the door.  No muddy, sandy shoes to come stomping through the house.  Even without the special entryway, it's easy enough to make a "genkan" by the back garage door--just put some simple shelving by the door (outside, or just inside), one shelf per family member.  Put a slipper rack back there in the winter if your feet get cold.  It may take a while to get used to it (my Mom is still working on my Dad...), but once you do, it's almost impossible to wear shoes inside again. 

Bonus idea (from Japanese kindergarten):
 How to Help Your Child Get Shoes on the Right Feet Without Saying Anything...
Using a black permanent marker, draw half a smiley face (or heart, or whatever) on the inside of the shoe at the instep and the other half inside the other shoe.   When the shoes are placed the right way, you can see the picture.  If they're backwards, the picture is broken in half and back-to-back.  Works like a charm!

Update:  My daughter brought her uabaki home from kindergarten to be washed, so I took a picture.  Cute, huh!

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. Ahhh! A genkan! I want a genkan, and I keep trying to figure out enclosing a small part of the porch to do it...

    I KNEW you would mention that part in Adrenaline Drive-- it cracks me up every time I watch it, partly because you told me your dear hubby's "what's so funny" reaction.
    Gah! Hilarious!

  2. I think there should be much more cross-cultural discussion in the world than there is. I know we could benefit from the shoe's off practice, and having a genkan by the door. I may try to initiate this at our house. Thanks for the encouragement. And thank you for the wonderful idea of the character drawn inside of the kids' shoes! (Such simple things; why don't we all think of that?)

  3. You're most welcome--I'll try to post more of that effective face-palm-simple stuff I see over here so often!