The Japanese obsession with removing your shoes and its influence on the evolution of furniture design
You might know that in Japan people always remove their shoes before entering a home or certain other buildings (including primary and secondary schools). But did you know that this one cultural practice had a huge impact on the development (or lack thereof) of furniture design in traditional Japan?
To be honest, until very recently I didn't quite understand the obsessive need to remove your shoes every time you enter your house. Yes, in theory it makes sense to keep the house clean. But I think many foreigners in Japan can relate to the frustration of having to unlace and re-lace your shoes every time you forget one thing before heading out (I started using my sneakers as slip-ons...). I didn't really get what the big deal was - why can't you just clean the floor more often?
Through my research on Japanese furniture history, I found something surprising. That is, that Japan didn't even really HAVE much "furniture" for thousands of years until it was influenced by Mainland Asia! The Japanese word for furniture is a little more encompassing than we tend to think of it in Western cultures. In Japan, the furniture category can include things such as tatami flooring, shoji sliding doors, and trays, so in that sense furniture existed, but in a completely different way than we think of in the West.
The chair was brought over from China in the Tang dynasty/Japanese Heian period (around 1100 CE), but didn't even achieve widespread use until after World War II! The same thing applies to the concept of stationary beds, which existed for the imperial family and nobility in the Heian era but didn't come into common use until recent decades (and even now many people still use futons). Slightly less dramatic, but still interesting, is the fact that the tansu or chest of drawers didn't become popular until the mid-Edo period (in the 1700's). So how on Earth did people get on for so long without beds, chairs, and furniture for storage?
"What does all this have to do with taking off your shoes??" you may ask. Don't worry, I'm getting to that.
It all comes down to a concept known as shitsurai. Shitsurai is basically the concept of rearranging a room for different uses. In Japan, individual rooms are thought of as more multi-purpose spaces, whereas in the Western world we tend to have a separate room for each activity. This is partly because the population density in Japan is so high that people don't have a lot of space. You need to be able to use a small space for many different purposes. Therefore, furniture in Japan is more mobile and versatile. For example, using a futon is a good way to economize on space. It is a thin mattress than can be neatly folded away and even put in a closet to make more room when you aren't sleeping. Many people living in tiny studio apartments today still use futon instead of beds. Another example of shitsurai is the use of folding screens and sliding doors in traditional spaces to compartmentalize rooms and even whole houses to fit a variety of different situations. Fast forward to my modern-day Japanese dorm room, and you have yet another ingenious space-saving example of shitsurai:
Furniture takes up a lot of space, so for centuries Japanese commoners made due mostly without it. In ancient Japan common people even ate on the tatami floor (that's right, no dining tables). Is it starting to make sense why they were (and still are) so scrupulous about removing their shoes indoors? Sitting on the floor, sleeping on the floor, eating on the floor. I bet you would take off your shoes too.
If ancient Japan hadn't had this custom of taking off your shoes at the door, they would have a completely different furniture design history. It's still a mystery why Japan is so different to other countries in this respect. How come most other cultures solved the problem of hygiene with elevated furniture while Japan did it with the simple act of removing one's shoes? We'll never know, but that's part of what is so fascinating about cultural differences.