Japanese Culture: Genkan 玄関

Mark Brazil

On first entering a traditional Japanese home, domestic architecture provides many surprises. These surprises may come in the very extensive use of wood and paper, the scale of the rooms, the use of screens to close off rooms, closets or the view to the garden, or in the flooring of rice straw matting known as tatami.

Entering a traditional room the surprises may come in the way decoration or elaboration is focussed on the household Shinto shrine placed high on one wall, or in the alcove to the room known as the tokonoma, stay in such a room and the ambient temperature in winter may focus your mind on the warmth provided by the thick quilted futon or by the warming device beneath the low table, known as a kotatsu.

Apartments built in the last thirty years of the 20th century largely abandoned these traditional elements, some have lost them all, though some retain a single tatami room, complete with tokonoma, as a token nod to the past, to a tradition and a lifestyle that is largely unfamiliar to younger generations.

Genkan etiquette extends to placing one's shoes in neat rows in pairs.
The genkan is where guests change out of 'dirty' street shoes, and into 'clean' slippers; those for adults are lined up in the foreground; those for children in pink and blue in the background.

Japanese genkan

However modern the home though, one element of traditional Japanese living is invariably retained, and that is the genkan. The genkan is to be found to this day at many hotels, ryokan, minshuku and pension, at doctors' clinics and dentists' surgeries, at many companies (though rarely shops), at some schools, in traditional restaurants, but most particularly of all at homes of all sizes and styles, whether of the rich and famous or of the low-paid part-time worker.

The genkan is, simply put, where one leaves one's footwear on entering. Like so many elements of Japanese culture, while appearing simple, there is nothing simple about it.

The necessity of removing one's shoes before entering a home, and the tendency to sit on flat cushions on the floor beside low tables, are elements of the past that live on very strongly in modern Japanese lifestyles. The genkan solves the problems of both where to remove one's shoes and where to leave them.

When the front door of a Japanese home is opened, one is greeted first by the host, and indirectly by a rough-floored rectangle, beyond which a low step offers entry on to a carefully floored or carpeted surface. Technically, the genkan, that lower section of floor just inside the door, is a token of 'the outside', whereas when one takes a step up into the home proper, that is 'the inside'.

Shoes, sandals, coats and umbrellas are definitely items for the outdoors, and they remain firmly 'outside' in the genkan; footwear on the floor, or on a special shelf, umbrellas in a special stand, and coats on a rack or peg. In contrast, socks are, by definition, 'clean' (or they should be!), and so they are worn indoors, and most hosts will provide slippers for guests to wear inside for warmth or comfort. Japanese slippers typically come in one size (that doesn't quite fit anyone) making walking difficult, but the slipper shuffle is easily learned, though slippers are a whole separate subject.

Where access to a traditional building is by way of screen doors, then the adjacent step serves as the token genkan where footwear is left.
Opening day at the Ebetsu International School. Though the entrance is carpeted it still serves as the place to change one's shoes to slippers.

One can think of the genkan as akin to the porch that overhangs and encloses the doorway at a western home, allowing the home comer to close the porch door on the outer elements, remove coat and boots, before opening the main door into the house.

The genkan is like a porch that has been intruded into the home; or conversely the porch is like a genkan that has been extruded outside the home. The big difference being that it is impractical to have a porch if you live in an apartment building or a 'mansion' (Japanese for condominium), whereas the genkan is more universally practical.

Genkan etiquette

Genkan etiquette, like so much of Japanese etiquette, is precise but rarely explained, leaving the first time visitor floundering as to quite what to do.

It is not enough just to remove one's shoes here and step up and inside; there is a right way and a wrong way of doing this. The wrong way is to pull off your shoes, drop them on the floor (or heaven forbid on the carpet), step on the lower section of floor with your socks (which have now become dirty in every possible sense of the word), and then step up and into the home.

The right way is to toe and heel your shoes so that you step out of them gracefully, leaving them down on the 'outer' floor of the genkan while you step up directly from your footwear into the home without your socks ever touching the 'outside' floor.

The fact that the genkan floor will most likely have been swept spotlessly clean by your host before your arrival is irrelevant.

Correct use of the genkan is as much a cultural ideal as it is practical common sense, it reflects deeply held Japanese views and attitudes to the concepts of 'inside', 'outside', and cleanliness, and in the simplest practical terms avoids tracking dirt into the home.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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