The Japanese have a well-deserved reputation for being a polite people, and Japan is a nation where following proper etiquette is not only expected of its citizens, but to a certain extent, its visitors as well. Removing one’s shoes before entering a Japanese home or certain types of establishments is a well- known practice. Concerning socks versus bare feet, however, protocols are less clear and confusing.
The issue of whether socks should always be worn in Japan has a mixed bag of answers. For instance, when visiting a friend’s home, bare feet are acceptable on a tatami mat. If out and about, however, for your own sake and as a courtesy to others, socks should be worn when using communal slippers.
As is the case when it comes to many matters of etiquette and manners (not just in Japan but anywhere in the world), the particular circumstances will often dictate the proper course of action. When it comes to deciding whether to wear socks in Japan, the main guiding factors will be where you are, what you are doing, and the social setting (i.e., informal, formal, public, or private).
Should Socks Always be Worn in Japan?
The question as to whether socks should always be worn in Japan stems from the fact that taking off one’s shoes is more than a custom to the Japanese people, it is a part of daily life for all who live and work there, and it is done without much thought (if any).
It all begins in the Japanese home, where shoes are never worn indoors beyond a few steps from the front door. There is usually a clear demarcation where the outside world ends, and the homeowner’s living space begins. The basic idea is to leave all the dirt and filth of the outdoors behind, and thereby maintain the interior of the home as a clean and hygienic refuge.
This practice carries over to many Japanese workplaces, and also extends to rustic shops, restaurants, and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), as well as certain public gathering places such as temples and shrines. It is for this reason that what is on your feet when the shoes come off, whether it be fabric or bare skin, matters a great deal in Japan.
Is Going Barefoot Bad Form?
Although Japan is a global technological leader in many modern industries, its society still adheres to centuries-old traditional views, and the sight of bare feet or toes in places like restaurants, subway trains, or libraries, may be frowned upon by certain segments of its population, particularly those who are middle-aged or older.
While many younger Japanese generations are quite fond of open-toe footwear like flip-flops and sandals, if you are sensitive to disapproving stares, it may be best to wear socks when out in public, even when wearing sandals. Luckily, socks are quite the specialty item in Japan, with many stores offering split-toe socks for wearing with sandals and other open shoes (there are even five-toe socks that fit like gloves for your feet).
Going Sockless in Public Places
There is also a practical aspect to either wearing socks in public at all times or at least having a pair stashed away somewhere on your person. Because the removal of footwear in public places like dining establishments (especially izakayas – a Japanese cross between an Irish pub and Spanish tapas bar) and cultural buildings, is commonplace throughout Japan, so too are the prevalence and availability of courtesy slippers to put on once the shoes are off.
It is a common sight in Japan, immediately upon entering an establishment, to see a dedicated area for the removal of shoes and donning of house slippers. The genkan, as this footwear transition area is known in Japanese, can be readily identified by the array of different shoes on the floor (often neatly arranged with toes pointing outward) and racks or baskets of communal slippers. Some buildings even offer cubbies or lockers for shoes.
The operative term here is that the slippers found in these public spaces are communal. As in shared with perfect strangers, the last whereabouts of whom is anybody’s guess. From the perspective of a sockless person, allowing your skin (albeit the soles of your feet) to come in contact with a slipper that has been previously worn by an unknown number of people seems questionable at best. (Even with the presumably high hygiene standards of Japanese proprietors.)
To take this logic further, and from the perspective of other people, putting on socks when sliding your feet into communal slippers would seem to be the courteous thing to do, especially in a country where one’s behavior in public is guided by principles based on the notion of courtesy toward others.
Proper Etiquette When Visiting a Japanese Home
When visiting someone’s home in Japan, the removal of one’s shoes is an unspoken rule that is never to be broken. And beyond leaving footwear at the front door, your relationship with the homeowner will determine whether you should have socks on your feet. In an informal setting (i.e., good friends or relatives), walking around barefoot in a Japanese home may be acceptable.
If, however, there is an element of formality to the invitation into a home, then prudence and courtesy dictate that you wear socks and keep them on for the duration of your visit. This is particularly the case if the home has a washitsu (traditional Japanese room with sliding rice paper doors) with tatami (woven-straw or bamboo floor mats) flooring, as not even house slippers are to be worn when walking on a tatami.
Then, there is the matter of visiting the restroom. In nearly all Japanese bathrooms, whether they are in private residences or public buildings, there are specially designated slippers to be worn exclusively when using the toilet. As these slippers are never to leave the restroom and are presumably worn by all persons who have used those particular facilities, wearing socks when wearing them seems like the right thing to do.
A Few Words about Socks in Japan
Because of Japan’s shoe etiquette, socks figure much more prominently in daily wardrobe decisions. On any given day, the socks you put on can be just as visible as the shirt you are wearing, which is why you should be a bit more selective about the socks you decide to pack in your suitcase when visiting Japan. And it goes far beyond choosing fashionable colors and making sure each pair is matching.
Nothing will inspire an audible gasp or furrowed eyebrows from an unsuspecting homeowner like the sight of toes or bare skin peeking out from holes in one’s socks. To say that wearing socks with holes in them is a major faux pas would be an understatement in the eyes of the Japanese people.
In what would undoubtedly be cause for embarrassment not only for the visitor but for the host as well, wearing socks with holes in them should be avoided at all costs.
For those who live in Japan, native social behaviors are intuitive, just like local customs anywhere else in the world. For visitors and foreigners, the Japanese footwear protocol has the potential to get dicey. To be on the safe side, when visiting Japan, default to wearing socks (or at least keeping a pair handy) whenever possible. And make sure the socks have no holes!