Genkan: Japanese Culture in the Home
Upon first entering a traditional Japanese home, the domestic architecture holds many surprises. These surprises can come from the extensive use of wood and paper, the scale of the rooms, the use of screens to close off rooms, closets or garden views, or the rice straw matting flooring known as tatami.
Upon entering a traditional room, surprises may come from the way the decor or elaboration focuses on the home’s Shinto shrine, placed high on a wall, or the alcove of the room known as a tokonoma (床の間); stay in such a room and the room temperature in winter you can focus your mind on the warmth provided by the thick padded futon or by the heating device under the low table, known as kotatsu (炬燵).
Apartments built in the last thirty years of the twentieth century largely abandoned these traditional elements, some have lost them altogether, although some retain a single tatami room, complete with tokonoma, as a nod to the past, to a tradition and a way of life that younger generations are largely unaware of.
What is Genkan (玄関), placing shoes in Japan.
Genkan etiquette (玄関) extends to placing shoes in neat rows in pairs. The genkan is the place where guests exchange their “dirty” street shoes for “clean” slippers; the adults’ are lined up in the foreground; the children’s, in pink and blue, in the background.
No matter how modern the house, one element of traditional Japanese life is invariably retained, and that is the genkan. The genkan is found today in many hotels, ryokan, minshuku and guesthouses, in doctors’ clinics and dentists’ offices, in many businesses (though rarely in stores), in some schools, in traditional restaurants, but most of all in homes of all sizes and styles, both of the rich and famous and of low-paid part-time workers.
The genkan is, quite simply, the place where you leave your shoes when you enter. Like so many other elements of Japanese culture, while it may seem simple, it is anything but.
The need to take off one’s shoes before entering a house, and the tendency to sit on flat cushions on the floor next to low tables, are elements of the past that survive very strongly in the modern Japanese way of life. The genkan solves the problems of where to take off shoes and where to leave them.
When the front door of a Japanese home is opened, the host is greeted first, and indirectly into a rectangle with a rough floor, beyond which a low step offers entrance to a carefully paved or carpeted surface. Technically, the genkan, that lower section of the floor just inside the door, is a display of the “outside,” whereas when one steps up a step into the house proper, that is “the inside.”
Shoes, sandals, coats and umbrellas are definitely outdoor items, and remain firmly “outside” in the genkan; shoes on the floor, or on a special shelf, umbrellas on a special stand, and coats on a rack or hanger.
Socks in Japan and Japanese slippers
In contrast, socks are, by definition, “clean” (or should be!), so they are worn inside, and most hosts will provide slippers for guests to wear inside to keep them warm or comfortable. Japanese slippers are usually one size fits all (which doesn’t fit everyone), which makes walking difficult, but you easily learn to shuffle around in slippers, although slippers are a separate issue.
What Japanese genkan looks like
When access to a traditional building is through screen doors, the adjacent step serves as a symbolic genkan where shoes are left.
Even if the entrance is carpeted, it is still the place where shoes are exchanged for slippers.
The genkan can be thought of as the porch that overhangs and encloses the entrance to a Western house, allowing the homecomer to close the porch door on the outside elements, take off his or her coat and boots, before opening the front door of the house.
The genkan is like a porch that has been brought into the house; or conversely, the porch is like a genkan that has been drawn outside the house. The big difference is that it is not practical to have a porch if you live in an apartment building or a “mansion” (condominium in Japanese), whereas the genkan is more universally practical.
Japanese genkan etiquette, the correct way to remove shoes in Japan.
Genkan etiquette, like much of Japanese etiquette, is precise but rarely explained, leaving the first-time visitor at a loss as to what to do.
It is not enough to just take off your shoes and walk in; there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is to take off your shoes, drop them on the floor (or, God forbid, on the carpet), step on the bottom of the floor with your socks (which have now become dirty in every sense of the word), and then walk upstairs and into the house.
The correct way to do this is with the toe and heel of the shoes, so that they come off gracefully, leaving them on the “outside” floor of the genkan as you walk straight up from the shoes into the house without the socks touching the “outside” floor.
The fact that the floor of the genkan has been impeccably swept by your host prior to your arrival is irrelevant.
Proper use of the genkan is both a cultural ideal and practical common sense, as it reflects Japan’s deeply held views and attitudes about the concepts of “inside,” “outside,” and cleanliness, and, in practical terms, prevents dirt from entering the house.