Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Design

Quite a while back  author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind, Drive, and others) visited Japan (and unfortunately my daughter got sick, or I'd have gone to hear him speak:((.    While he was here, he was struck apparently by what he saw as Good Design all around him, and posted a couple of times about it on his blog.  Things like... recycling in McDonald's (paper, plastic, and a drain to dump your left-over drink in before you throw out the cup), which made me smile because that very lack of recycling in the US drives me crazy every time I go home.  There were several other things he mentioned, which unfortunately I can't find because his blog doesn't archive that far back (I'm slow:))

This came back into my mind the other day, because my husband had me dig out my English copy of Drive--The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (he's trying to improve his reading ability--such a good boy!).  Which reminded me of my favorite example of Good Design in Japan--Genkans, which I wrote about when I first started blogging, and if it's alright with everybody I'll repost part of that entry here.  And if my Genkan were presentable, I'd post a photo...

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 shod 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 shoe prints 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.

To be honest, I see examples of both Good and Not-So-Good Design here, but the good examples outnumber the not-so-good examples.  At least, I think they do.  So to be scientific about it, I'll start a list and post again On Design in about a month:))

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. minnesotans are really big on removing shoes in houses as well. I didn't realize this was a cultural thing in MN until a few years ago. Not that we require people to take off their shoes if they don't want to(we're from MN, we would DIE before we required people to do anything) Which i guess explains why i never thought it odd for the japanese to remove their shoes in the house. It's just common sense. Also, more comfortable

    Also, i hate how my house doesn't have an entryway. You open the door and you're in the living room. There's nowhere for people to put their shoes, so they just pile up by the door. I wish we had a genkan

  2. As a teen I hated visiting people who insisted on shoes being taken off. For about five years my feet stank so bad that dogs fainted half a mile away as soon as I took my shoes off. I'd go to any length, back then, to avoid visiting them.

    I'm trying to think of western customs that would seem equally shocking or funny to Orientals, but of course I can't. I'd have to see them from outside to see them for what they are. Maybe that's what sets good authors apart. They seem to be able to look at their own culture from the outside and spot the ludicrous bits. Pratchett springs to mind again.

  3. Interesting post, Amy!

    The men in my family have always been factory workers and so the heavy boots came off on the porch and stayed there. Kids were always getting shoes muddy and so they stayed on the porch. I always thought it was completely practical and never considered that it might be cultural.

    The older women always wore house slippers and everyone else was barefoot in every home of friends or family I can remember.

    My husband's work boots and my Sage's shoes come right off and they go barefoot while I keep my slippers by the door and change into them there.

    Of course, when we had thieves break into an old place a decade ago, they kept their shoes on..

  4. genkans are awesome--very convenient place to put all the shoes and umbrellas and stuff you don't want dragged into the house. And, as I said, it's a ubiquitous design feature--you won't find a house without it. In the US, I think lots of people do take off shoes as a practical matter, but probably wouldn't if they were having company. In Japan, if it's a "take your shoes off" place, you do it. I had to take off my nice heels and wear ugly slippers with my dressy dress at a wedding held at a church where you had to take off shoes (public places are sometimes off, sometimes on). Honest and for true:)) Basic rule--if you see a step and a shelf, take off your shoes.

    Daz-if you'd grown up in Japan, you'd have had to change from outside shoes to inside shoes (lightweight crepe-soles canvas shoes) as soon as you got to school:)) All schools have genkans, too. I was just sitting here thinking about customs (american) that might seem strange to Japanese--and I wrote a long enough list, that I think I'd better write a separate post about it. Maybe a couple (pregnancy differences would be a whole post by itself:))
    Alice--that's just what my mom does, keep her slippers by the door. She has for years and years. It's getting my dad to take his shoes off that's the hard part:)) Although, of course, if his shoes are particularly wet or muddy, he takes them off outside.

    Actually, I think I should write a post about Reverse Culture Shock (at least, that's what I call it). It's the weirdest thing the first time you experience it after living abroad for any length of time.

  5. Cultural differences are fascinating. I love the polite criminals taking off there shoes. I wonder if this could be used in a court of law against and offending party. Cops come to the scene and in a second can tell whether the thief was Japanese or a foreigner just using the fact that he took off his shoes. Book 'im Dano!

    I know what you mean about reverse culture shock Amy. I lived in Africa for two years and going there wasn't nearly so unsettling as coming back. I have a theory for this. When you are going to another place, you know it will be different. The more different the place is the more you mentally prepare for those differences. You will never understand them beforehand, but at least, you know they will be there.

    But when you return to your native land, you expect to fit right in again. In the time you have been gone, you have changed a great deal but fail to realize that, and as a result there is an unexpected and unprepared for culture shock.

    I remember coming home from equatorial Africa in January. The temp when I left was about 85 degrees F. And the temp I returned to was -30 below. Talk about shock.

    This reminds me of that old saying, "You never cross the same river twice." This is so true, but we continue to think that we can. And I think this causes us a great deal of trouble sometimes.

    Life is so transitory.

  6. This is the third time I've tried to post this comment. Grrrrrr...

    Exactly! That's exactly what I eventually noticed after I got back from Germany in college. And it was hard to explain to other people who hadn't ever been abroad (short trips abroad don't really count). The weirdest thing was trying to talk to someone in English, and words would come out in German, or I just couldn't think of the word at all. Very frustrating. The first time I came home after being in Japan for two years, I remember sitting in Dallas waiting for my connection thinking, "Wow! There are so many foreigners here!" Duh. I totally forget what I look like over here:)) Everything in America looked absolutely HUGE--houses, people, cars, roads, restaurant portions.

    You went to Africa for two years? Did not know! Story:))! Wow--equatorial Africa to Montana(right?). A shock, indeed--and not just the temperature.

    And I will now post this before Blogger eats it again!