The Japanese have different shoe etiquette and feet sensibilities than the Anglo-American cultures with which I’m familiar. I mean, Canadians are good about not wearing boots with winter muck into people’s houses, but I was impressed by many Aussies’ fortitude in walking around barefoot in all weathers and all terrains. (No shoes in the grocery store or library? Gross! On the street? Ouch! Flip flops at 0 degrees and bare on concrete at 40! Crazy!)
Anyway, in Japan, all homes and many other buildings have an architectural feature called a genkan, which I guess could be translated as an entryway. It’s the liminal space between the door and the home where you can take your shoes off. Usually there is a small step up from the genkan to make it very clear where the space ends. In homes or other places where you remove shoes, you might then put on slippers to go inside (or just pad around in socks). The etiquette is very clear: inside feet (whether in socks or slippers) do not go in the genkan without shoes, and outside shoes never, ever go beyond the genkan into the inside space. We have a set of crocs for the genkan space for opening the closet there or the front door if we don’t feel like putting on outside shoes.
As demonstrated in the photo above at the entrance to a historical home, the proper way to take off your shoes is to back up to the edge of the genkan and step backward into the house, with your shoes pointing outside. You can then step right into the shoes again when leaving.
We noticed a bit of confusion when Japanese people visited us in our “western” apartments in the past. We kept our shoes by the door, but the genkan space wasn’t clearly delineated and they weren’t sure whether they should take off their shoes inside or outside the door. A Japanese moving company packed up our things for our move to Japan, and the workers left their shoes outside and did the packing and lifting in their socks.
Besides homes, there are other spaces where outside shoes aren’t worn, such as sacred places like temples and shrines or just particularly nice floors. You also never wear shoes on a tatami floor, nor even slippers. Same for a dōjō (ring) for martial arts that are practiced with bare feet.
At the gym where I belong, and one I visited before, you remove your shoes when going into the locker room (socks only) and then when you come out, put on “inside only” gym shoes. Wearing outdoor shoes into the gym is a big no-no.
One last important space for footwear etiquette is the toilet. Japanese homes have a separate little room with just the toilet with slippers kept ready at the entrance. You take off any other slippers that you might be wearing and step into the toilet slippers. Again, it’s polite to leave the slippers facing into the room for the next person to step into. And it is a considerable faux pas (literally!) to accidentally where the toilet slippers out of the toilet room!! At my gym, large croc-like slip-on shoes are placed in the toilet room on the main gym floor for people to step right into wearing their gym shoes. (The first time I encountered them, I was a bit confused about what to do, as they were labeled with instructions in Japanese. At least I could read the word “shoes” and figured out what to do.)