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Understanding slipper etiquette in Japan

Any foreigner (or gaijin as we’re called in Japan) who has visited or lived in Japan will know about slippers. In fact you might go so far as to say that every gaijin who has ever visited Japan has made some sort of slipper error. You see slipper etiquette in Japan is complicated. The rules for the removing of, the placing of, and the swapping of your shoes and slippers may leave you baffled.

Firstly, one of the best pieces of slipper advice you may hear is always – and by that I mean always – be prepared to take your shoes off. Bumping into a colleague and being invited back for a quick coffee is all well and good until you whip your shoes off to discover one red and one orange sock, or even worse – a hole. A hole that has expanded whilst inside your shoe until it has grown to big toe sized proportions. Nothing says I am a responsible businessperson like a big toe peeping out to say hello, does it?

Secondly, there is knowing when and where to take your shoes off, which really comes down to practice. To be safe take off your shoes before entering any house, even your own. Gas men, electricians, plumbers and even furniture removal men (whilst carrying dining room tables and double beds) will take their shoes off when entering your house. In public places it varies, look out for piles of shoes, lockers or buckets of not very attractive plastic slippers.

Thirdly, watch out for toilets and toilet slippers. On entering a bathroom in a public place you must remove your other slippers and put on the special plastic toilet slippers, often with the word ‘toilet’ written on them. Easily done, but very easily forgotten on leaving the bathroom. Entering the office or classroom with toilet slippers on will induce sniggers from your colleagues or students. Believe me I’ve been there.

But, sometime it’s bound to happen, despite the fact that you’ve fully prepared your socks, you’ve practiced taking your shoes off quickly and neatly, you’ve watched others for efficient shoe removal tips, you’ve sussed out when, where and how to remove and leave your shoes. At some point, I guarantee it, you will find yourself fully shod in a room full of slippered people. If no one has noticed the best thing to do is subtly sneak back to the entrance and slip out of your shoes before anyone does. But, if you’ve been spotted, try to look sheepish, point at your feet, slap yourself in the head and say, Sumimasen, baka gaijin desu’ (I’m sorry, I’m just a stupid foreigner), and all slipper errors will be forgiven.