While traditional Japanese dress has been largely replaced with western clothing, some of its customs still survive intact. The most common is the practice of removing one’s shoes when entering someone’s home. The custom is a combination of cleanliness and the fact that traditional flooring is made from tatami, straw matting that is easily damaged by footwear. There is a story of the first American consul to Japan, Townsend Harris getting off to a bad start with his hosts by walking straight into the shogun’s presence in Edo Castle without removing his shoes.
While geta have become pretty rare, the shoe cupboard in every home’s genkan (entrance hallway) is still called a getabako (geta box). When you enter the genkan, you must remove your shoes and the formal etiquette is to leave them neatly aligned and to the side, facing inwards. The host turns them around and puts them in the center before you leave. Younger people tend not to worry about these finer details anymore. But when entering shrine or temple buildings and many Japanese-style restaurants, you will be expected to remove your shoes. Many restaurants and homes provide slippers for guests, though these should be removed when entering a room with tatami mat flooring. Also, there will be a separate pair of slippers to be changed into in the toilet.
The Japanese have a very deep-rooted though largely unspoken understanding of the difference between spaces. The genkan is a kind of border post post between the outside world and the inner sanctum of the home. Delivery men may quite casually step into your genkan but that’s as far as they’ll go without you inviting them in. There is almost always a step up into the home and the Japanese word for entering a home is literally to “step up“. Even when entering your own home (uchi, meaning inside), the act of removing your shoes is symbolic of casting off the worries and troubles as well as the dirt of the outside world (soto). “Dosoku de agarikomu” (literally, go inside with soiled feet) is a metaphor for meddling thoughtlessly in someone else’s affairs.