Put off thy shoes from off thy feet…pt 1

For the third day in a role, I walked into the vestibule at the entrance of my school and let out an audible: “Shit!”

Each of the three days it has gotten progressively louder. The first day it was more of a hiss. I might have even dropped the “T”. The second day the “T” was very much there and, along with the rest of the word, exploded from my throat like a grunt or a belch.

Today it reverberated around the entire first floor.

Abe-sensei, one of my co-workers, just happened to be passing by on her way to the teacher’s office just as I let out this barbaric yawp, and, not knowing what to make of it and wanting to give me my space, she sped up to a trot. ” Abe Sensei, Ohayo!” I tossed at her, the greeting intended to assuage any trepidation she might have been feeling, but she was so embarrassed at having caught me in what I guess she had determined to be a private moment, she hardly responded. Just volleyed a smile my way.

If she hadn’t been passing by at that exact moment everyone would have thought it was a student…they make all kinds of noises this time of morning. And, in this English-free environment, nobody would know the word “shit” from “Shitsurei shimasu.”  But there was no chance of that now. Abe-sensei is a wispy old lady, curly brownish-gray hair, with bangs and, for me, an ever-smile elasticized on her face. One thing, though: she likes to run her mouth. She will go the office and tell her ace boon coon drinking partners, Kawaguchi-sensei and Suzuki sensei that Loco-sensei’s out in the hallway making primitive war cries, or something. Jokingly, of course. The woman doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body. But by the time I walk into the office everyone’ll know that bellow that proceeded the late bell was made by none other than their resident foreigner: me. No doubt.

But, I didn’t really care about that. Abe-Sensei had nothing to do with what prompted the “Shit!”

I was staring at the wall of shoe lockers, each a numbered box, like a bowling alley shoe rental. In most of the boxes, a leather-ish slipper, the school name stenciled onto the instep of it in golden lettering.

These slippers are for guest. In case you don’t know this Japanese custom: outdoor shoes are not to be worn indoors. At home, in the office, some restaurants, some libraries, hell I’ve even been to hotels that observe this custom. And at my job, Staff, students , everyone observes this custom without blinking it’s so ingrained in the culture.  Many people visit the school, mostly Japanese…and all comply without complaint. The PTA use them a lot. On the feet of the PTA members, they actually look pretty classy. Various contractors use them. Visiting salespeople use them, too. That UPS guy (actually Kuroneko here in Japan) who’s always in a rush has integrated into his rush the routine of removing his shoes before entering the premises. And, since people can not be expected to run around with slippers bulging from their pockets, most places that observe this custom have slippers available to ease observance. My school is no exception. We have an ample supply.

I, however, as a rule, do not use them.

No, I’m not some kind of clean freak, though the hygienic indifference of this custom used to give me the willies. I’ve seen our maintenance guy get at the slippers not unlike the staff at a bowling alley gets at their rental shoes, only diligently, with disinfectant and purposefulness. And, no, I’m not trying to be Donnie Brascoe, though occasionally I wouldn’t mind boxing some ears.

Why, then? Well, the slippers only come in one size. Yes, they are one size fits all…all Japanese, that is, with the rare exception. I am that guy with the slippers bulging from his pockets, or in my backpack, or in a Tokyu Supermarket plastic bag.

I have a pair of Old Navy flip-flops I bought especially and I use them at the office. They are very comfortable and make compliance with this particular Japanese custom a joy. Over the course of the past 3 years I have gotten very accustomed to this custom. In fact, I don’t know how I managed before and I can’t imagine going back to wearing shoes all day. Ever. Not because I have it in for shoes…it’s just that my feet have it in for me.

I have the worst feet of anyone I know. I am a podiatrist wet dream. If I don’t have every foot disorder known to science, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a lock on, at least, most of the painful ones. Corns, bunions, ingrown toe nails, you name it. Thus, Japan’s quirky little tradition of removing shoes has been a bonanza for me, and my feet have been ever so grateful. Oh, and did I mention they’re large…not Shaquille O’Neal large, but in Japan I might as well be Shaq, my size, 13, is so uncommon. Shoe stores frown and apologize and Japanese restaurant staff people have to refreain from laughter at the notion I expected them to have a slipper that would fit me. Sometimes they even check…come back with the jumbo slippers they have on hand for just such an occasion, with smiles that exude all the confidence of a staff that had anticipated their gaijin client’s needs, only to have that smile turned upside down when they find that their jumbo-sized slippers barely cover my instep.

“Shit!” I yelled because 3 weeks earlier, as my readers know, I went to Hawaii. And, in anticipation of fine weather and foot comfort, I brought my flip-flops home from work and packed them for the trip to America. “Shit” I hissed on the first day back at this school (I hadn’t been here since returning to Japan) when I realized that I had left my flip-flops at home and, since walking around the school and teaching classes in my socks was not only frowned upon but was dangerous, I would be forced to squeeze my dogs into slippers that would fit a child back home and wound up limping around the school all day in pain, leather-ish material rubbing on my corns, the butt of a thousand adolescent and hardly post-adolescent jokes. “Shit” I grunted standing before the slipper lockers on the second day when, after the agony of the previous day, and a reminder as I departed the day before from my co-workers, I realized I somehow managed to forget them again. And, “SHIT!” I bellowed today, scaring my co-worker shit-less, as I stared down at the tiny brown toe tormentors and wondered if I could get away with going barefoot…just for one day.

Fortunately, today, I only had one class to teach, so I spent the majority of it in the office where I could sit slipper-free and write…and remember.

I remembered why I didn’t take to the Japanese custom of shoe removal at the door very well at first.

In Exodus, the Lord told Moses to put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground, and Moses, being an obedient fellow and not one to argue with a talking bush of flames, did as he was told. But, back in the apartment of my childhood, my mother was the lord and the law, her long flowing dreadlocks were the burning bush, and she too commanded that shoes be put off thy feet before entering her home or you’ll find her foot in thy ass.

She had her reasons.

No, she wasn’t on some Japanese trip, though I must admit, in retrospect, there were a number of elements to life in that apartment that would indicate my mother having had at least some Asian influences. Besides the shoe removal rule, there were also the bamboo curtains, not only on windows but sometimes used as makeshift doorways. There were also pieces of bamboo art hanging on the walls and vases with Asian themes around the apartment. And my mother certainly had a few Asian articles of clothing, night gowns and such. But, all of these were common, all except the shoe removal.

You never had to ask my mother why EVERYONE who entered her house had to take off  their shoes.

The reason stabbed you in the eye as soon as you entered the apartment!


to be continued…


13 Responses to “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet…pt 1”

  1. December 3, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    looks like someone like me who has large feet better pack a pair or two when I eventually visit Japan

    • December 3, 2009 at 11:30 pm

      Thanks Jamaipanese…yep, big feet got it rough over here.., 😉

  2. 3 Oli
    December 4, 2009 at 11:55 am

    What is the average shoe size of Japanese males and females? I’m an 11 so I guess I’d have it rough aswell!

    • December 4, 2009 at 12:07 pm

      Hey Oli! Yes you will…don’t know the average but it’s awfully small
      thanks for the shout (-:

    • December 4, 2009 at 8:24 pm

      Size 11 is the biggest size you can easily find here in my experience. Coincidentally, it’s also my size!

      Any larger and you’d better be prepared to order your shoes online.

  3. December 4, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Did you grab some flip flops in Hawaii?? I got a pair of “Locals Only” for all occasions. I’m sure Hawaii coulda caught you. Some of the Local/Samoan/Tongans got some freaky size feat and heads and everything.

    The “hygienic” angle always freaked me…can I please have some foot fungus..some athletes foot perhaps?…..makes no fucking sense from a clean angle.

  4. December 5, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I teach at three schools so I bought 3 pairs of faux crocs for each school. The funny part is the indoor /outdoor shoe isn’t strictly enforced. I’ve seen the staff come to work wearing their indoor shoes.

  5. December 5, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I can sympathise. I work in 4 schools in Japan and despite my modest size tens (UK, that’s either a 9 or an 11 US) just fitting into the Japanese slippers, they are best avoided. I do what the other teachers do and leave a pair of trainers in each school. Either rubbish ones from the cheapo shoeshop down the road or old ones that are a bit too crap to wear outside, hastily wiped down to make them look clean enough for indoor use.

    I don’t get much choice in the local shoeshop, or even out in Tokyo when I’m looking for shoes. My shoes aren’t big, and I’m not especially tall (even here in Japan), but my trips to the cobblers leave me frustrated, mainly because the shoes are organised by style and not size
    “oooh, they look nice, what size do they go up to – oh.”

    Looking forward to finding out the reason that stabbed you in the eye. I dearly hope you lived in a bouncy castle.

  6. 9 Michael Brana
    December 6, 2009 at 1:53 am

    Taking off your shoes is not only a Japanese custom, we do it as well in Slovakia, and I am pretty sure that in Poland and Hungary as well…it’s just you don’t need to bring all this shit that is outside into your home…do you realize how many people spit to the pavement?dissuting..

    • December 6, 2009 at 8:21 am

      I also like the idea of not having dogshit on my carpet. If you wear your shoes indoors it is inevitable that this will happen one day. Trust me.

  7. 11 MikeinKorea
    December 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Hey would you have any information about finding a teaching job in Japan? Any info would be a blessing

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