The difference between "inside" and "outside" in Japan is so distinct that it manifests itself in the ubiquity of slippers in Japanese homes, labs and offices. For indeed, who would want their homes soiled by dirt from somebody's filthy shoes? Undoubtedly, this trait has earned the Japanese the reputation for cleanliness and hygiene - until you take a second look.
Bringing shoes in translates to more effort in keeping floors and tatami mats clean for okasan, who is probably also too busy herself at the neighborhood pachinko shop. Slippers are her floor's panacea. But for the typical gaijin, these are a source of both amusement and sometimes inconvenience. Let me illustrate.
My work involves microbiology and animal cell culture, hence, our lab is what you would call a "clean room." That means all our shoes should be left outside in lieu of slippers that are stacked at the door. And guess what? I'm the only person, a gaijin, of course, who's still wearing laced-up shoes. All the others are wearing moccasins or step-ins. This is probably the reason why bargain counters are always brimming with laced-up shoes. And that's why gaijins like me keep buying them.
Ambulance workers are sure as hell not allowed to wear laced-up shoes. And there's probably one way that you could help them help you if you're gasping through a heart attack. The paramedics, being Japanese, would have to (1) take off their shoes, (2) wear those dainty slippers, (3) remove you from the bedroom, and then (4) fumble again with their shoes under your stretcher. (Boy, what if they're laced-up? Whew!) So after calling the hospital, maneuver towards the door, even if it almost kills you.
Most slippers are made of cloth, and if left moist and unwashed, become perfect niches for fungi, some even causing skin problems. I heard that these types of slippers are usually found in doctors' offices, where you can quickly download the latest version of Athlete's Foot 2000. So while the doctor removes your viruses, he also leaves you with the "I Love You" worm. This type of collusion between doctors and fungal drug companies probably only happens in Japan. No wonder the biggest posters at drugstores are those of athlete's foot medicines.
And then there are those slippers at the toilet with the letters "W.C." nicely written on them. What their use and what those letters mean is anybody's guess. They couldn't be for hygiene since what's so hygienic about wearing the same slippers that a hundred others have used while doing their most unhygienic business. I doubt that they're for warmth since the Japanese-style toilet isn't really a cozy place to take a good book. Ah, but if those slippers are the wooden-type geta clogs, then it would surely be awesome to hear yourself clacking around in stereophonic sound in a tiny, tiled room - perfect when you're inebriated. After all, "W.C." may actually mean "wooden clank." (Editor's note: "W.C." actually stands for "Water Closet", a British term.)
Gaijins usually face the problem of forgetting to take off the toilet slippers and then bringing them back to the tatami room. Then not only do they commit one social blunder, but two. One, that toilet slippers should always stay in the toilet, and two, that they shouldn't be so stupid.
I wonder who benefits the most from this "slippery business." Top guess would be the slipper industry with their variety of products - from the plastic ones to cloth to leather to wood or any combination in between. What I like best are those Dr. Scholl types that promise health with their acupressure soles. Some even guarantee an increase in height if you keep on wearing them. They're about an inch thick, anyway.
And of course, there's the socks industry. Surely, socks wear out faster if people take off their shoes as often as possible. And no holes please, ladies and gents. In civilized Japanese society, wiggling a toe through your socks is the ultimate faux pas. Until I came here, never have I bought so many socks of so many colors.
But I guess it's really the Japanese who benefits from all these. Not only do they spend less time with the vacuum cleaner, some also surreptitiously let you pitch in on the cleaning. Some homes don't offer house slippers, and if they do, they're often so small that your foot overlaps the sole. So if you heavily drag your bright clean socks on their floor, don't be surprised if your hosts flash you a sinister, toothy grin.
Blending in the group-oriented Japanese society means understanding what "inside" and "outside" mean. To the gaijin, it is one key to becoming part of the so-called "in-group" and to avoid remaining in the "out-group." So next time you have to wear those stupendous slippers, smile. You're going in, not going out.
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